Dillon Bates is a huge key to this 2014 recruiting class for Tennessee
The six "legacy" commitments in Tennessee's 2014 recruiting class are going to be instrumental in helping the Volunteers try to move on from this ugly half-decade and restore the program to prominence.
For Dillon Bates, Todd Kelly Jr., Evan and Elliott Berry, Vic Wharton and Neiko Creamer, that task carries an extra weight that can only benefit the Vols moving forward.
While Kelly's and Creamer's fathers roamed the field during Johnny Majors' heyday of the 1980s and early '90s, Bates' and the Berrys' dads helped shepherd UT through the rocky Bill Battles-to-Majors transition.
The Tennessee legacies provide an important thread between the Vols' rich history and a future that head coach Butch Jones wants to resemble the glory days of the past.
They also lined up at the perfect time for Jones' rebuilding efforts.
In a year where Tennessee is able sign a huge class and has a huge need for quality players at every position, the legacies provide a foundation of talent who know firsthand about experiences that made UT one of the most storied programs in the nation.
That isn't going to make them play better, but it may make them harder. At the very least, it will give them an additional burden to turn around the Vols' recent fortune than a prospect with no ties to the program.
Four-star linebacker Bates—whose father, Bill, was a UT standout and NFL All-Pro with the Dallas Cowboys—acknowledged to Govols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription) that he simply feels something different when it comes to Tennessee.
Ever since I was little, I always wanted to follow in my dad's footsteps, whether that be through high school, through college, through hopefully the NFL. I know that I'm on the right track to following in his footsteps, with him leading the way years ago, and I'm trying to do everything that he's done, and hopefully better, and (go) into the NFL after Tennessee.
All the other visits that I've ever been on, they haven't really felt like I'm at home or felt as comfortable as I have been at Tennessee. It's that little something, whenever you step out on the game field during games and you kind of get those goosebumps that you feel at Tennessee, that I didn't really feel at other places, that made me kind of realize that this was the place for me.
That was the case with all the players with ties to the program. Every legacy UT offered eventually gave their verbal commitments to Jones. They've all stayed firm, too.
It all started with Vic Wharton on Christmas Day 2012 when the 3-star athlete chose the Vols over several other SEC offers, becoming Jones' first pledge of the '14 class. Wharton's uncle Brandon was a standout basketball player for the Vols.
While Wharton isn't the highest-ranked commit in UT's class, he may be the most important. He immediately began networking with other recruits over social media and using his ties to a couple areas of the state where he'd lived (Knoxville and Nashville) to recruit.
Wharton's recruiting persistence paid off, as he helped lure 4-star safety Todd Kelly Jr., who followed his father's path by committing to UT in March. The elder Kelly was a star defender for Majors' teams that went 38-9-2 from 1989-92.
Earlier in the week Kelly committed, UT secured Neiko Creamer, a 3-star jumbo athlete whose father Andre played for Majors from 1984-87 when the Vols were 33-12-1.
Four-year runs such as the one the elder Kelly and Creamer enjoyed were made possible by Bill Bates and James Berry helping UT rebuild when Johnny came marching home from Pittsburgh. While those late 1970s and early '80s seasons weren't always pretty, they set the table for the program's surge.
It's kind of the same position these 2014 commitments are in today.
Wharton told Volquest's Brent Hubbs (subscription) this week how he'd targeted those players with Tennessee ties:
T.K. (Todd Kelly, Jr.) and I grew up with each other when I lived in Knoxville. I know with his dad going to Tennessee I knew he might go to Tennessee. I had in my heart that he would. I thought after he committed if we could get someone else and when Jalen (Hurd) committed I just felt like we could really do something with our class. Having that first five star committed and now having Josh Malone as well, we couldn't ask for a better class.
Getting Evan and Elliott Berry to commit in early November was the bow on top of a legacy class Jones wrapped up. The twins' father was a running back and a captain at UT, and their brother, Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro safety Eric Berry, starred for the Vols during the tenures of Phillip Fulmer and Lane Kiffin.
With each legacy pledge, the link between the past and future became stronger. While that may seem insignificant to outsiders, it is a major change from the previous two coaching regimes that ignored rather than magnified UT traditions.
Kiffin infamously had posters of USC stars like Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart on display in UT's Neyland-Thompson Sports Center rather than Vols stars of old. Then, Derek Dooley alienated former players as well as recruits.
Jones wants to do the opposite in Knoxville. He understands how important and significant the traditions are to the fans, and he wants to make them important to the current players.
Having players who understand the past can benefit the future. For the legacy pledges, they hope to usher in a new era that restores Tennessee to its place among the nation's elite and bring the glory days back to the present.