When Tennessee hired Butch Jones away from Cincinnati in December 2012, the move was met with a resounding "Who?" on Rocky Top.
Fourteen months later, the Volunteers head football coach has turned in the most surprising and impressive recruiting job in the nation. With national signing day wrapping up, UT has the nation's seventh-ranked recruiting class, according to the 247Sports' Composite Rankings.
Jones signing a huge, star-studded class of 32 players under the circumstances he inherited is proof that he has done the best recruiting job of any coach in the 2014 recruiting cycle.
Consider this: The teams surrounding the Vols in the rankings are a veritable who's who of the college football world:
Alabama won two of the past three national championships. LSU has enjoyed a prolonged run of success. Ohio State has lost two games in two years under Urban Meyer. Florida State is the defending national champion. Texas A&M just moved to the SEC and had a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
And Tennessee? The Vols have suffered four consecutive losing seasons and have had four coaches in six years.
A little more than a year ago, they couldn't even recruit their own state under Derek Dooley, as reported by the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Stephen Hargis.
This year, with Wednesday morning's commitment of Michael Sawyers, Jones concluded the class signing eight of the state of Tennessee's top 10 players, according to the 247Sports Composite state rankings. The addition of Sawyers guaranteed a bright morning.
Jones has enjoyed unexpected success elsewhere as well.
When 4-star running back Derrell Scott committed to UT in late January over South Carolina—the team believed to be Scott's favorite for nearly two years—his high school coach, Jim Bob Bryant, shed some light on Jones' recruiting prowess with 247Sports' Ryan Callahan (subscription required):
When he committed to Tennessee and waited this long to commit to Tennessee, it's because Tennessee has made the biggest impression on him and that's where he feels most comfortable for the next four years of his college career. I think he's made a great choice. …
I think it was a two-horse race for a long time between South Carolina and Tennessee. I think (Tennessee) coach (Butch) Jones did a great job on the in-home visit, and he must have said something that really resonated with Derrell and his family.
What a difference a year makes. The Vols have gone from a coach who couldn't sell the program to kids in his backyard to one whose success has spanned the nation. The Vols' commitments hail from 12 different states to go along with one from Washington D.C.
There wasn't even much concern surrounding the vast majority of the pledges, compared to what is normally seen in the tumultuous weeks leading up to national signing day.
So, how has a little-known Midwesterner blazed his way South and put Tennessee back on the college football map in the eyes of recruits in such a short time?
First, he made recruiting in-state a priority, and his arrival coincided with a banner year for talent in Tennessee.
Then, he took advantage of having six highly-rated "legacy" prospects who had family members play for the Vols.
Throughout, he turned on the salesman charm, selling immediate playing time and a rebranding of the program. He played up the public relations by introducing "Smokey" gray football jerseys, and followed it up with an upset of South Carolina.
Even though UT finished his first season 5-7 with another bowl-less winter, that was a mere footnote to Jones' churning propaganda machine.
From the beginning, Jones sold the potential of the future rather than making unfulfilled promises for a drab present. He pounded the asphalt and then spent as much time chatting up players on Twitter as he could.
Prospects bought it, and the commitments piled up.
Longtime Southeast recruiting writer Chad Simmons of Scout.com told Fox Sports Tennessee's Greg Pogue:
Butch Jones likes to get out there and be seen. He wants to meet all the parents and is very much hands-on. He wants to know the kids, and he wants the kids to know him.… Jones and his staff have a consistent energy on the recruiting trail. They do a good job of working the prospects not only on a daily basis, but an hourly basis when they can. They are very good at staying in contact through social media.
Jones, like Phillip Fulmer in his heyday, has revived the power of the "Power T." While highly rated recruiting classes don't always equal wins (Tennessee fans know that well), an injection of a major talent upgrade was the first necessary step in rebuilding the program.
Now, the onus is on Jones and his staff to prove they can win in the SEC. If they start piling up victories and begin to contend for the SEC East, 2014 is only the beginning of what Jones will do on the recruiting trail.
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