Will Tennessee's Epic 2014 Recruiting Class Turn the Program Around?

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2014

D'Andre Payne is one of the 14 newcomers who will get a head start on turning around a dormant program
D'Andre Payne is one of the 14 newcomers who will get a head start on turning around a dormant program247Sports

Tennessee has been here before. Six times in the BCS era the Volunteers have signed a class that promised to return sound and fury to Neyland Stadium only to fall short of expectations.

But fear not, Vols fans, the 2014 class is the real deal.

Not only has head coach Butch Jones signed the quality of players needed to compete in the rugged SEC, experts also point to the depth of talent in UT's huge class that finished ranked seventh by 247Sports as a reason for excitement.

Throw in the facts that the Vols met major needs, already have 14 newcomers on campus and landed quality players on the lines of scrimmage, and there is little not to love about the transfusion of 32 players into a program desperately needing new blood.

"I've got no doubt that this is the kind of class that can be a springboard for Tennessee," 247Sports national recruiting analyst Barton Simmons said in an interview.

The Vols signed eight of the state's top 10 players and 16 4-star players, according to the 247Sports Composite. From top to bottom, it's perhaps the best class UT has signed since Phillip Fulmer's halcyon days.

But it's just a first step.

A class like this one is an absolute necessity to get a dormant program on track, but Jones' ability to sustain this recruiting momentum will be the biggest difference between a brief uptick of improvement and turning around the program.

"The key perspective to keep in mind with this 2014 Tennessee class is that it's just the beginning," Simmons said. "Expectations that this class, even with 32 signees, can turn this program around in one season are unrealistic. Just look at the past few years at Tennessee as an example. They've had plenty of elite talents come through at a number of positions, but it hasn't all clicked at the right time.

"Tennessee has got to continue to recruit at a high level over a three- or four-year period before they'll be comfortable again from a talent standpoint. But I don't think there's any question that this is about as good of a start as you can ask for out of Butch Jones in getting the ship turned around."

Simmons isn't throwing a wet blanket on the buzz; he's wisely attempting to bring soaring expectations back down to Earth.

Jones himself tried to temper expectations on national signing day, even in the midst of reporters from Sports Illustrated and ESPN's Grantland in the "war room" providing the country-wide attention the Vols have lacked in recent years.

Luckily for UT fans, the things Simmons said need to happen are happening. The Vols already have seven commitments in a 2015 class that Jones said recently would feature between 18 and 22 players, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel's Evan Woodbery.

The excitement surrounding the program remains, and Tennessee is still on the tip of prospects' tongues.

A large part of that sustained momentum is because of the star power present in the '14 class, and many of those premier players are already on campus.

Sep 28, 2013; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones during the second half against the South Alabama Jaguars at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee won 31 to 24. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Fourteen new players will go through spring practice, which begins Friday, and that is a luxury that cannot be undersold when it comes to rebuilding a football team.

Guys like running back Jalen Hurd, receivers Josh Malone and Von Pearson, tight ends Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm and offensive linemen Dontavius Blair and Coleman Thomas could star immediately.

Jones told the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown recently that the group already has done a good job of "elevating our overall competitive spirit and our overall athleticism."

Considering the athletic deficiencies on the 2013 Vols, the influx of talent is refreshing. Tennessee's need for speed was glaring, and this class already will turn the program around from that standpoint.

During the recently completed cycle, Jones signed a deep group of talented players nearly the size of two recruiting classes, which will only speed up the rebuilding process and turn the program around quicker.

247Sports national recruiting analyst JC Shurburtt told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) after national signing day that even with the "bust" factor figured into the equation, he feels comfortable anointing UT's class the start of something big.

Taking advantage of a good in-state class, landing out-of-state players with connections to the staff and/or program and then landing select junior college players gives this roster an immediate upgrade.

Even if three-fourths of these guys hit, this class will impact the Tennessee program greatly in the coming years. There is too much potential top-to-bottom for it not to, with it being such a large class.

It doesn't appear that recruiting will slow down anytime soon, either.

With Jones at the helm and athletic director Dave Hart bought-in, there is a renewed commitment within the current administration to keep momentum surging. 

They're proving that by keeping ace recruiter Tommy Thigpen amid a storm of interest, reportedly in negotiations to give him a raise after his banner season on the recruiting trail.

It's foresight like paying top recruiters that somehow got lost during the past decade, and it's a major reason why UT fell so far.

Jones is working to restore the traditions, and this class is a major move in that direction.

Nobody in the country believed Jones could do what he did without producing a bunch of wins on the football field. The needs he met were staggering.

  • The Vols have lacked an elite running back on the roster for so long, so Jones went out and got two—in-state stud Hurd and shifty North Carolina runner Derrell Scott.
  • They needed replenishing in the trenches, so they went out and signed 10 offensive and defensive linemen.
  • After teams like Auburn and Missouri torched their slow linebackers and defensive backs, Jones signs six 'backers and six on the back level.
  • Needing play-making pass catchers, the Vols inked three receivers and two tight ends who could see immediate action.

The list goes on and on.

But signing such a stellar class doesn't mean a roster so depleted will all of a sudden be one of the best in the league. They've got to develop, they've got to pan out and some even have to play above their star rankings.

Another infusion of talent is needed this year, and the year after that.

Dave Martin/Associated Press

Then, there's that nagging question Simmons dragged up that is the orange-painted elephant in the corner: Does UT have a quarterback on campus good enough to be "The Man?"

They'd better, considering the failure to sign a signal-caller was the one deficiency in the '14 class.


"I expect Tennessee to be better than last year, but the biggest question mark to me is the position that Tennessee didn't even sign: quarterback," Simmons said. "I think all this talk is moot if you don't get sound quarterback play."

Jones believes he will, or he'd have signed another one to go with the four already on campus.

Because Jones believes it, many Tennessee fans believe it, too. Even though he hasn't won much yet in Knoxville, he has won a fractured fan base's trust with the way he has sold them the program.

It's much the same way he's pitched the resurgence to top prospects and former players.

Even the national folks believe that Jones is the man to turn around the program, and the 2014 class was the first step in that process.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

"I think Butch Jones gets it," Simmons said. "He gets recruiting, and he understands Tennessee. He's not selling smoke and mirrors, and he's not reinventing the wheel. He's got a powerful brand at Tennessee, and he clearly understands how to tap into that and ride that wave.

"When you talk to kids and high school coaches, it's clear that he's got all the tools as a recruiter to be successful at Tennessee, but ultimately, it doesn't matter if you don't win. So, as long as that piece falls into place, Butch Jones looks like a safe bet."

Quotes for this story obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report unless otherwise noted.


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