Tennessee turned heads with a 2014 recruiting class that featured more than 30 players. The high-volume haul culminated head coach Butch Jones' first full year with the Volunteers and immediately solidifies the foundation of what he is building toward in Knoxville.
Jones helped the program make history in his first game on the sideline—a 45-0 drubbing of Austin Peay. Tennessee became the eighth FBS team to collect 800 victories that afternoon, but a historically competitive squad has struggled and stumbled during the past decade.
The Volunteers remained a work in progress throughout the 2013 season. An October win over 11th-ranked South Carolina highlighted Jones' inaugural campaign, but double-digit losses in four other SEC bouts must be accounted for.
Tennessee finished with five victories for the third straight season. The team hasn't secured a conference winning percentage over .500 since 2007.
Longtime Volunteers coach and 1998 national champion Phillip Fulmer was ousted the following year. Tennessee is just 11-29 against SEC opponents since.
Following the frustrating tenures of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley, Tennessee signed Jones away from Cincinnati. He arrived on campus in December 2012 with two months to assemble a solid recruiting class.
The final result was unspectacular but featured a slew of standouts, including coveted North Carolina receiver Marquez North, Georgia quarterback Joshua Dobbs and 4-star in-state linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
This trio was among a group of freshmen forced to step into sizable roles immediately.
North led the Volunteers in receiving yards (496), Dobbs started four games and Reeves-Maybin quickly became a valuable special teams contributor.
Jones wasted no time turning the page in an effort to prepare his program for the 2014 recruiting class. He had more than a year to assemble a crop of players he knows are pivotal to the future at Tennessee and ultimately hit a home run with this group.
The class ranks seventh nationally and features 16 4-star recruits, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. Jones quickly got to work, cultivating this core of youngsters with 14 early enrollees on campus for spring camp.
His efforts will pay immediate dividends in Knoxville. Tennessee won't have to wait long for an impact, as several members of this class can be counted on to contribute next fall.
When a team with 15 wins in its past three seasons welcomes nearly a third of its roster in one swoop, those new additions must rise up immediately.
The Volunteers offensive attack stands to improve most, which should delight Tennessee fans. The team ranked 96th nationally in points per game last year, crippled by a pedestrian passing game.
Quarterbacks combined to throw 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Tennessee's 165 passing yards per game ranked 109th in the country.
Dobbs is no longer a true freshman and will accrue an entire offseason of preparation. Quarterback classmate Riley Ferguson held offers from Alabama, Clemson and LSU before signing with the Volunteers in 2013.
Rising senior Justin Worley took snaps during each of the past three seasons but failed to solidify himself as the full-time starter last fall. The battle may ultimately come down to Dobbs and Ferguson.
Tennessee hopes whoever wins the job can take the reigns of this offense for years to come. There is some serious help on the way, which will provide the quarterback with a vastly improved supporting cast.
Recent signees Josh Malone and Jalen Hurd are both on campus already. The 4-star playmakers had plenty of options elsewhere but opted to stay in their home state and attempt to build something special.
Hurd, a 6'3", 230-pound all-purpose back, set the single-season rushing record in Tennessee as a junior. He gained 3,357 yards on the ground in 2012 and instantly infuses athleticism into the Volunteers backfield.
“I’ve grown up watching Tennessee,” Hurd told 247Sports reporter Gerry Hamilton. “My grandparents are huge Tennessee fans. For me to stay home and play for the Vols is a dream come true."
He'll team up with incoming 4-star running back Derrell Scott. The South Carolina recruit was a late addition to the class after rushing for more than 2,100 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior.
Malone, rated fifth nationally among receiver recruits in 247Sports' composite rankings, showed explosiveness throughout his senior season at Station Camp High School (Gallatin, Tenn.). He caught 71 passes for 1,404 yards and 19 touchdowns, per 247Sports.
The Tennessee defense also receives a major boost, especially in the defensive backfield. Four-star safeties Todd Kelly and Cortez McDowell are expected to make an immediate difference on special teams and compete for time in the secondary rotation.
The Volunteers secured signatures from three 4-star linebackers, headlined by beastly Florida defender Dillon Bates. Jones managed to maintain a team legacy and pick up a pair of talented defensive prospects in Evan and Elliott Berry, twin brothers of former Tennessee star Eric Berry.
For now, any anticipation of upcoming success in Knoxville is purely speculation. Still, after putting the finishing touches on an exemplary recruiting class, Jones and his coaching staff have pieces in place to turn a storied program around.
"This is a very, very good class, but everything is up to their personal growth and development," Jones told the Associated Press (h/t FOX News). "These are 17- to 18-year-old individuals. Everyone's going to develop differently at their own pace. We'll be extremely, extremely young next year, but also very talented."
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