KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The large patch of dirt on the corner of Volunteer and Lake Loudoun Boulevards may not be the most obvious sign of progress at the University of Tennessee, but for those familiar with the campus, it's the most noticeable.
It's here on this barren spot where Gibbs Hall—Tennessee's primary residence hall for athletes since 1963—was recently razed along with historic Stokely Athletics Center.
The demolition of the two brick dinosaurs will make way for a new residence hall, dining facility and parking garage, along with adding two more football practice fields.
It's the latest in a long line of recent renovations at Tennessee that has aided coach Butch Jones in his efforts to recruit some of the nation's top players to UT and restore the Volunteers to their traditional perch.
"I think all the things you see around campus is a direct reflection of a vision of what's going on at Tennessee," Jones told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "Everything is about painting that vision. There is so much positive energy and commitment going on here right now, it's exciting.
"It's one of the most exciting times in the history of Tennessee football and the history of the University of Tennessee's entire athletics programs. You're seeing progress. You see strides being made every day."
Walking around campus, it's impossible not to notice the evolving Tennessee brand. Jones' fresh fingerprints are all over the traditional program.
A little way down Lake Loudoun from the Gibbs construction site sits the sparkling new Anderson Training Center, which houses Jones' office as well as all the athletics offices and a state-of-the-art weight room (complete with a full nutrition bar).
A Hail Mary away is Neyland Stadium, which looms archaic but stately on the bank of the Tennessee River. The old girl's metal guts still gleam in the afternoon sun, but a recent face-lift left the historic home of the Volunteers more aesthetically appealing to fans and recruits.
That modern upgrade has been repeated throughout UT's athletic facility enhancements from the past few years. The end is nowhere in sight, either, as an athletic department already lauded by recruits for lavish facilities rushes to catch up (and pass) the nation's top programs.
The enhancements around Tennessee are certainly noticeable to recruits.
"It was my first real big place to visit, and growing up a UT fan, walking into the training center—they'd just built it—I was in awe, really," said UT 4-star offensive line commit Jack Jones. "I was like, 'Dang.' And they're still adding on and getting better stuff. It's awesome.
"The facilities are second-to-none. Obviously, in the SEC, everybody is going to come out with something new every year, but the past few years, Tennessee has done a good job of staying up with the times. I'm excited to just get up there and break in the new facilities a little bit."
Andrew Butcher, a four-star defensive end, said UT's facilities were "head and shoulders" better than any of the schools he'd visited, which includes Georgia, Clemson, Vanderbilt and Auburn.
To hear the buzz around Tennessee these days is impressive considering the bleakness that permeated the program during the Derek Dooley tenure.
UT has not only been in the midst of a major down cycle that has been low-lighted by four consecutive losing seasons, but the athletic department has also struggled across the board.
The department is finally on its way up from a budget crisis that has seen its reserve fund drop to one of the lowest in the SEC at "well below $5 million," according to VolQuest's John Brice (subscription required).
Also, an Academic Progress Rate grade that had UT's football program in real danger of major NCAA penalties boasted a school-record score of 962 in the 2012-13 year, according to The Associated Press.
Jones said he has felt "zero hindrances" in recruiting from the APR or the budget issues. He called the one-year APR improvement "the greatest victory in the history of Tennessee football." Part of the progress in that area was getting athletic control of tutoring and recommitting to that area by making some personnel changes.
Prior academic issues have turned to progress, and yet another selling point for Jones.
"It just shows all the hard work is paying off in the classroom," Butcher said, "and it will on the field very soon—competing for SEC championships again."
That's Jones' plan. As he speaks, UT is putting the finishing touches on a state-of-the-art studio that will be available for the SEC's new television network. It's yet another of the major innovations Tennessee has been on the front end of as it moves into what it hopes is a more lucrative era.
In the near future, UT hopes to return to the success of its past. It's no coincidence that by 2016, the new dormitory and expanded outdoor football practice facility expansion are expected to be completed. That's also when the football team should be ready to start competing for championships again.
And Jones' pitch will only be strengthened by the shiny facilities surrounding him.
"We're working to get Tennessee back to its rightful place among the elite of college football every day," Jones said. "You look at the new dormitories, the new residential halls being developed, the Anderson Training Center, the new practice fields. There's progress being made each and every day. We have great people in place that are totally aligned, have the vision, same energy, same passion to be at Tennessee. And we have a great product to sell.
"It's an exciting time. I know our players feel it, and our prospective student-athletes—our recruits—feel that energy. We know it’s just a matter of time."
All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports.
Brad Shepard is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Brad on Twitter here:
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