It’s often said recruiting is the lifeblood of a college football program. If that’s indeed the case, Tennessee has found a gem in Butch Jones. Since 2008, Tennessee is 33-41 overall with a 14-34 record in conference play. 2014 will mark the 10th anniversary of the last time Tennessee beat Florida. They haven’t won a game against Georgia since Lane Kiffin was patrolling the sidelines, and they have never been victorious in a matchup with Nick Saban’s Alabama. Tennessee is at its lowest point in history, yet it hauled in a consensus top-10 class on Signing Day 2014. The class of 2015 looks to be even more promising, as some of the nation’s top athletes, Kahlil McKenzie and Preston Williams being the headliners, have committed to play for Jones on Rocky Top. How has Jones done it? How is he recruiting with the nation’s foremost powerhouses?
First, we should look at the recruiting success of Jones to date. Jones’ 2014 class is brimming with promise. Jalen Hurd, a bruising behemoth at running back, has been compared to Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon. Derrell Scott and Treyvon Paulk are also quality talents after whom many SEC teams went. South Carolina was devastated when Scott committed to the Vols. Josh Malone and late bloomer Von Pearson will factor into the passing attack quite early, as will tight ends Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf. Malone was one of the most heavily recruited players in America. Helm was regarded as one of the nation’s best pass-catching tight ends in high school. The offensive line is still a concern, in particular the tackle position. Dontavius Blair was a highly regarded junior college recruit, but he has been less than stellar in practices thus far. Many around the program are hoping he can turn it around so Tennessee doesn’t have to start walk-on Jacob Gilliam in his place. Coleman Thomas, a highly-regarded recruit whom Florida State coveted, will man the other tackle spot. Ray Raulerson, a recruit from Tampa’s Plant, and two in-state monsters, Brighton’s Charles Mosley and Nashville’s Jashon Robertson, completed the offensive line haul (Mosley and Robertson were recruited as linemen who could play offense or defense; Mosley, unfortunately, will be out for the season due to injuries sustained in a car accident). The defensive line has been a cause for concern for a while, as Tennessee hasn’t had a true hoss since Montori Hughes. That is about to change. Brentwood Academy’s Derek Barnett, Ensworth’s Michael Sawyers, junior college prospect Owen Williams, uber recruit Dewayne Hendrix (Ed Orgeron thinks Hendrix will be a 1st-rounder), and defensive end prospects Jakob Johnson and Joe Henderson have injected much needed talent into the defensive front. At linebacker, highly-regarded Dillon Bates will contend for freshman All-SEC honors, and junior college recruit Chris Weatherd will likely be a solid pass-rusher on third downs. Gavin Bryant, on whom Alabama passed due to grade concerns, will also factor into the equation. In the defensive backfield, the Vols appear to be on the right track, as well. Emmanuel Moseley, a sleeper from Greensboro, North Carolina, who has greatly impressed the coaching staff, was penciled in as a starter during the spring. Evan Berry and D’Andre Payne will also see time at corner, as the coaches figure out what to do, position-wise, with the sensationally talented Rashaan Gaulden. Furthermore, Todd Kelly, Jr., and Cortez McDowell will form the best freshman safety duo in the conference.
While the 2014 class is extremely deep and talented, the 2015 class could top it. The nation’s number one overall player according to Scout.com, Kahlil McKenzie is an Ndamukong Suh-level game changer. Preston Williams, a 6’4, 191 lb. fashion aficionado from Hampton, Georgia, is regarded by some as the nation’s top wide out. Those two are the headliners of the class so far. Quinten Dormady, a Texan quarterback prospect, has good size and a good arm and was offered on the spot by Lane Kiffin and Nick Saban. Former Alabama running back and future Vol Alvin Kamara only adds to a highly-touted and recruited backfield. Jack Jones and Zach Stewart are two very nasty, home-grown offensive linemen who committed to Jones’ program early on in the process. Defensive end Dylan Jackson is the best product out of Maryville in years. Cecil Cherry is a bowling ball of a linebacker, and Buford’s Quay Picou and Austin Smith are two intriguing prospects coveted by powerhouses who committed on Orange Carpet Day. Jauan Jennings is a highly coveted athlete who will either play quarterback or safety for the Vols. There are also a few sleepers; Murfreesboro tight end Kyle Oliver and Roanoke offensive tackle Chance Hall come to mind. The 2015 class is far from complete. It will likely look a lot different by the time signing day rolls around. The Vols will likely ask a few players to look at other options in order to make room for more highly sought-after recruits. They also may ask them to grey shirt or become a preferred walk-on. Another option for one or more of the current recruits will be to go the junior college route. Tennessee is in very good position with a number of elite prospects, including but not limited to, defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, athlete Torrance Gibson, offensive tackle Drew Richmond, defensive tackle D.J. Jones, defensive end Kyle Phillips, wide receiver Van Jefferson, linebackers Quarte Sapp and Montavious Atkinson, and defensive backs Rico McGraw, Cameron Ordway, and Justin Martin.
Jones has brought the swagger back to Rocky Top. He has been very accommodating to the school’s most treasured alums, from Peyton Manning to Jam Lewis. Are some of his sayings and actions corny? Yes, but that’s who he is, and he’s embraced it, and that’s helped him far more than it has hurt. He’s not Nick Saban, and he’s not pretending to be. He’s Butch Jones, and he believes that is good enough to compete at this very highest level of collegiate athletics, and I believe he’s right. The evidence is right there on our computer screens at Rivals, 24/7, and Scout. While the results on the field haven’t been much about which to write home, Butch Jones is certainly winning off it, and that’s most of the battle.