VOL. 8 | NO. 7 | Saturday, February 7, 2015
Vols’ Jones Continues to Impress With Recruiting Skills
DAVE LINK | The Ledger
KNOXVILLE – National signing day is in the books, and Tennessee football coach Butch Jones and his staff can relax and savor another top-tier recruiting class.
Oops. Wait a minute. No time off for Jones and his assistants when it comes to recruiting. They’re already busy putting together the 2016 class, and looking at recruits for future classes.
Such is the world of college football.
You win games by winning over top recruits, and Jones appears to have put together a winner in his second full season of recruiting at UT. (His first official class was 2013, which he salvaged not long after being hired).
Tennessee’s 2015 class was rated No. 4 nationally in the 247Sports team recruiting rankings going into the final week, which culminated with Wednesday’s national signing day. UT’s 2014 class ranked as high as No. 5 nationally.
The Vols and Vol Nation were already riding the momentum from the Jan. 2 TaxSlayer Bowl victory, the program’s first bowl win since 2007, and the first winning season (7-6) since 2009.
Now Jones has energized fans again with another top recruiting class, ranked by 247Sports behind only Alabama, Florida State, and Southern Cal heading into national signing day.
Q: How has Jones done it at UT?
A: It’s one of many questions I asked Ryan Callahan, who covers Tennessee football recruiting and is an analyst for 247Sports and the Knoxville News Sentinel’s website, govols247, which provides in-depth coverage of UT sports.
Q: How have Jones and his staff been able to land top recruiting classes in 2014 and ’15, and why have they connected with coaches and recruits so well?
2015 Spring Enrollees (10)
(Stars by 247Sports)
- Andrew Butcher, DE, 6-2, 245, Alpharetta (Ga.) High School, three stars
- Quinten Dormady, QB, 6-4, 200, Boerne (Texas) High School, four stars
- Stephen Griffin, S, 6-2, 185, South Mecklenburg High School, Charlotte, N.C., three stars
- Chance Hall, DL/OL, 6-5, 315, Northside High School, Roanoke, Va., three stars
- Jauan Jennings, QB/ATH, 6-4, 200, Blackman High School, Murfreesboro, four stars
- Jack Jones, OT, 6-5, 300, Oakland High School, Murfreesboro, four stars
- Alvin Kamara, RB, 5-11, 195, Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, Norcross (Ga.) High • School, five stars
- Darrin Kirkland Jr., LB, 6-1, 225, Lawrence Central High School, Indianapolis, four stars
- Kyle Phillips, DE, 6-4, 250, Hillsboro High School, Nashville, five stars
- Shy Tuttle, DT, 6-3, 315, North Davidson High School, Lexington, N.C., four stars
2015 Commitments (18)
- Micah Abernathy, CB, 6-1, 187, Greater Atlanta Christian, Norcross, Ga., four stars
- Venzell Boulware, OL, 6-4, 295, Creekside High School, Fairburn, Ga., three stars
- Joc Bruce, ATH, 5-10, 165, South-Doyle High School, Knoxville, three stars
- Sheriron Jones, QB, 6-2, 192, Rancho Verde High School, Moreno Valley, Calif., four stars
- John Kelly, ATH, 5-10, 203, Oak Park (Mich.) High School, three stars
- Riley Lovingood, OL/LS, 6-1, 240, Beech High School, Hendersonville, two stars
- Justin Martin, CB, 6-2, 192, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Junior College, Nashville Overton, four stars
- Kahlil McKenzie, DL, 6-4, 319, Clayton Valley Charter School, Concord, Calif., five stars
- Darrell Miller, CB, 5-10, 171, Cedar Hill (Texas) High School, three stars
- Kyle Oliver, TE, 6-5, 230, Oakland High School, Murfreesboro, three stars
- Vincent Perry, ATH, 5-11, 170, Hillsboro High School, Nashville, three stars
- Quay Picou, DT, 6-3, 287, Buford (Ga.) High School, four stars
- Quart’e Sapp, LB, 6-1, 200, Milton High School, Alpharetta, Ga., four stars
- Austin Smith, LB, 6-3, 230, Buford (Ga.) High School, three stars
- Zach Stewart, OT, 6-5, 305, Coalfield (Tenn.) High School, three stars
- Darrell Taylor, DE, 6-4, 220, Hopewell (Va.) High School, four stars
- Tommy Townsend, P, 6-1, 175, Boone High School, Orlando, Fla., two stars
- Preston Williams, WR, 6-4, 191, Lovejoy High School, Hampton, Ga., five stars
A: “It’s funny, when (Jones) got to Tennessee, there was the big question about his staff, whether he had surrounded himself with enough of the kind of coaches you need on your staff to be able to recruit in the SEC, but what we’ve found over the past couple of years, I think, is that he and his staff put so much time and energy into recruiting that they make it work for sheer effort, I think, with creativity in some cases.
“They do a really good job of dealing with social media and keeping up with players on [social media] and being able to generate buzz for recruiting online, tweeting about commitments in ways you can do legally and things like that.
“It’s an advantage of the energy you can sometimes get around your program in your first couple of years, and they made the most of that last year, took advantage of some Tennessee legacies in that class and had a nearly consensus Top 5 class, just outside the Top 5 in our rankings, and this year they’ve kind of just built on that momentum from last year, and then on top of that, they had a little bit of on-field success, but most of the class, though, had been built by that point by the end of the season.
“Tennessee gets to a bowl game for the first time in four years, but by that point they had already done most of the work, so I think he’s just kind of capitalizing on what they had already done in the past and kind of convinced these kids that they have things going in the right direction, that at least the ball is rolling in the direction they want it to be for Tennessee to get back to where it wants to be.’’
Q: How attractive is it for UT recruits to hear they will play early if they’re good enough, as Jones and his staff have made apparent? (UT played an FBS-high 23 true freshmen in 2014, and 12 true freshmen started games)
A: “It made a big difference with several guys in this class to look out there on the field when they were on campus for games and see 20-plus freshmen or first-year players on the field at some point in the season.
“Players saw it during their visits, they saw when they were watching on TV, and the coaches certainly used that as a sales pitch, so there’s no question their willingness to play freshmen has helped with some guys.
“At the same time, I think this year maybe they haven’t had to use that sales pitch quite as much because last year they just needed to inject some talent into the roster, frankly, and just upgrade some spots throughout the team.
“This year there are some spots for some guys who are going to be able to come in and start right away and play right away, but not nearly as many as there were a year ago, so I don’t think they’ve had to go to that sales pitch quite as much. But they have used that, no doubt, that they were able to play so many freshmen (in 2014).’’
Q: How has Jones done at UT with in-state recruiting, and how crucial is it to land the top players? (In UT’s 2014 class, 10 of the 31 signees were from Tennessee. In the 2015 class, nine are in-state players).
A: “The state is putting out more talent than ever now. It’s important for them to land as many of those top players as they can. That is a luxury that Tennessee has had the past few years that used to not be available to the Vols. I think this year actually that almost was a knock on this class, was the in-state success wasn’t quite at the same level as last year.
“Last year was almost an unattainable mark in terms of in-state recruiting, landing nine of the top 11 players in the state in last year’s class.
“This year, they have missed out on a few guys, frankly, but landing Kyle Phillips, the five-star defensive end from Nashville (Hillsboro), kind of salvaged that to some degree.
Jack Jones of Murfreesboro Oakland is firmly entrenched at UT, having enrolled for the spring semester.
“They also got Jauan Jennings and Jack Jones from Murfreesboro and a couple of the other top prospects in the state, so they did get some of the big names, and they shuffled in those guys with several other in-state guys.
“But there are a few highly ranked players from inside the state, especially in the Nashville area, that will be going elsewhere, so it’s not as good as it was last year, but no doubt they have continued to make in-state recruiting a priority, and that’s been a big part in them being able to build this kind of class back-to-back years.
Q: How important was it for the Vols to sign linemen this year, particularly on offense with the lack of depth and game experience the unit had in 2014?
“Right now they’ve got four offensive line commitments, and they’re still trying to add Drew Richmond to the group. Tackle is the one spot that they, maybe to this point, haven’t addressed as much as they would like, but they’re still working on that with Drew Richmond.
Q: They’ve got a nice group there, maybe a little bit underrated, honestly, as a group just in terms of what they have so far.
“I think that’s a decent unit that could definitely upgrade the depth there overall compared to what they had a year ago. Jack Jones, in particular I think, has a chance to maybe be a starter down the road, and Chance Hall is an intriguing prospect who was an early enrollee, and hasn’t played in a while on the offensive line but has a lot of upside as a possible tackle.
“They’ve got a nice group there that should help their depth, and that was no doubt a priority for this class with the struggles they had on the offensive line and not having quite as many bodies there that they trusted.
“The defensive line is kind of the centerpiece to this class, really. Anytime you get a five-star defensive tackle like Kahlil McKenzie, that’s going to be one of the high points of any class, and add to McKenzie five-star defensive end Kyle Phillips and then Shy Tuttle, a top-100 defensive tackle, this is as good of a defensive line class that Tennessee has signed in years, and that’s no doubt going to be one of the highlights of this class when people look back on it.
“Darrell Taylor is a top 200 or 250 type player from Virginia, and Andrew Butcher, another defensive end from the Atlanta area.
“They’ve gotten other good players at the defensive end too, but certainly to land a couple of top 100 defensive tackles, including a five-star and the No. 3 player in the country in our rankings (McKenzie), anytime you get two defensive tackles like that, they’re the stars, but I think the defensive end class is pretty strong, too.’’
Q: UT has three cornerbacks and one safety for the secondary in the 2015 class. Does that fit the needs there?
A: “They’ve been looking to really improve their depth at corner and also improve their size there and speed, obviously, and they’ve gotten all of those things with this class. Justin Martin is a 6-foot-2 cornerback from the junior college ranks who has really good speed and a lot of upside even though he’s a bit raw as a cornerback.
“He’s another potential in-state guy (from Nashville Overton) who’s coming from an Oklahoma junior college, but he’s an important pickup because Tennessee really hasn’t had many of the tall, fast corners that you see throughout the SEC in recent years, and then throw on top of him Micah Abernathy, another 6-1 corner, and then Darrell Miller from Texas, that’s a pretty nice group of corners.
“Safety wasn’t a huge need this year, but to get Stephen Griffin from North Carolina, he’s a guy with good size (6-2, 185), so I think down the road he could be a contributor, and he was an early enrollee so he’s already on campus, and that might give him a chance to contribute as a freshman, at least on special teams.
Q: Jones was able to sign three freshman quarterbacks, despite having Joshua Dobbs returning as the clear No. 1 for his junior year in 2015. How healthy is the quarterback situation now with newcomers and the departure of backup Nathan Peterman, who it’s been reported, will transfer to Pitt?
“Getting two of those guys (freshman quarterbacks Jauan Jennings and Quinten Dormady) in as early enrollees helps a lot, but that’s one area, as good of a job as Tennessee did with last year’s class, signing 32 players, not one quarterback was in that class, and that was one of the few shortcomings of that class, that they weren’t able to continue building quarterback depth, and it hurt this year after Riley Ferguson transferred.
“They were down to three scholarship quarterbacks, so with Justin Worleygraduating and Nathan Peterman’s future where it is, to have a chance to add three quarterbacks in one class is really rare, especially when there’s not really a path to a starting job for one of those guys.
"And with Dobbs coming back, there’s certainly not a direct path to playing time, but yet they’ve gotten three players, and not just three quarterbacks, but three really good ones, all four-star prospects ranked among the top 300 players in the country.
"To get three guys like that in the same class – that is pretty unusual and, one of the more impressive things about this class, for sure, and I know Tennessee is excited to have those two guys, Dormandy and Jennings, already on campus.
Q: What type of role do you expect from sophomore running back Alvin Kamara, the early enrollee from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College?
A: “Alvin Kamara’s going to be one of the stars of this class I think by the time his senior year rolls around, if he even makes it that long, because he could be the type guy who has a chance to play a year or two and move on to the NFL. He’s got that kind of talent.
“I think he’s probably going to split carries with Jalen Hurd this year if I had to guess, and the fact that he’s coming from the junior college ranks helps with that, and he started his career at Alabama (where he redshirted in 2013), obviously, so he’s got some experience in the SEC that should be beneficial and make that transition smoother for him.
“He’s got a great chance to come in and play a big role right away.
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.