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VOL. 132 | NO. 139 | Friday, July 14, 2017

Jones Has Definitely Proven He Can Recruit

By David Climer

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Offensive lineman Cade Mays, the son of former Vols lineman Kevin Mays, is a 2018 commitment for the Vols. He’s also a consensus five-star prospect. Getting commitments from promising high school players like Mays has been one of the strengths of Butch Jones. (Submitted)

When in doubt, do what you do best – recruit. That seems to be the approach of Tennessee Vols coach Butch Jones. While many UT fans, and some in the media, are portraying this as a make-or-break season, Jones is planning for his future by stockpiling commitments for 2018 and beyond.

UT has 17 public verbal commitments in the Class of 2018, which ranks fourth in the nation, according to Rivals.com. More importantly, that class ranks second in the SEC, trailing only No. 3 LSU.

And it doesn’t stop there. The Vols also have four commitments for 2019, including big-time prospect Cameron Wynn of Notre Dame High in Chattanooga.

While Jones has said some odd things that set UT’s fanbase on edge (“five-star hearts” and “championship of life” chief among them), his recruiting pitch plays well with prospects and their families. Whatever he’s selling, many of them are buying.

Undoubtedly, Jones understands one of the best ways to improve his job security is to line up a strong recruiting class. Sure, winning the SEC East would take care of everything, but there also is something to be said for bringing in talented players. That is the life’s blood of the program. And Jones is doing that, based on the recruiting rankings.

Early commitments are particularly important this year. A recent NCAA rule change allows 2018 football recruits to sign scholarship papers from Dec. 20-22 instead of waiting for the traditional February period.

If it’s a close call on whether to keep a coach or jettison him, a strong list of commitments can make the difference.

As far as the list of early commitments is concerned, it’s not like Jones is trying to pile up a lot of names on a list without regard for quality.

There is talent in that group of 2018 commitments. Jones has one consensus five-star prospect, offensive lineman Cade Mays, the son of former Vols lineman Kevin Mays, as well as seven four-star recruits.

Maybe that’s why new UT athletics director John Currie has gone on record as saying the Vols program is “in a great position,” largely because of what Jones has done as a recruiter in his four years as coach.

“I think coach Jones has provided tremendous leadership with the progression of our program the last four years,” Currie told Volquest.com, which covers UT athletics extensively. “… I know how respected nationally the turnaround job and the rebuild has been under coach Jones’ leadership.”

At the same time, though, Currie acknowledges he has not discussed a contract extension or raise with Jones. Currently, Jones’ contract runs through 2020 and pays $4.1 million annually. He got a $500,000 raise in 2016.

“We have not had specific conversations about that,” Currie said about a contract extension during a stop on the Big Orange Caravan. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about our program and we’re really focused on getting ready for the season and doing a great job with recruiting, as he’s doing, and getting to know each other.”

Jones is wise to nurture a strong relationship with his boss. He and Currie’s predecessor, Dave Hart, were especially close. But Hart hired him. Currie inherited him. There’s a big difference.

While you can pick away at player development and in-game decisions, it’s hard to find much fault with Jones when it comes to recruiting. Since arriving at UT in December 2012, he has compiled recruiting classes that ranked Nos. 21, 5, 5, 15 and 15 in the nation, according to Rivals.com. The 2018 class appears to be headed to another high finish.

Eight of UT’s 17 commitments are in-state prospects. That’s similar to the template Jones followed in the 2014 class. That year, Jones used the early commitments of highly sought-after recruits like Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr. to get the attention of other prospects, both inside the state and out.

Yes, there have been some in-state misses. As soon as Ohio State offered a scholarship to running back Master Teague of Blackman High in Murfreesboro, he jumped at it. Alabama got a commitment from defensive end Jordan Davis of Memphis Southwind High. Vanderbilt picked off Brentwood Academy teammates Camron Johnson and Gavin Schoenwald.

All in all, though, UT is doing quite well in its home state. And that’s important because Tennessee has come of age as a recruiting destination. The 2018 class is strong and the 2019 and 2020 classes also include considerable in-state talent that is up to SEC standards.

It’s about time.

For years, the state lacked both star power and depth when it came to recruits. There have been only two years since 2000 that the Vols signed 10 homegrown prospects – Phillip Fulmer’s next-to-last class in 2007 and Jones’ second class in 2014. During that same span, there have been seven years in which UT signed five or fewer in-state players.

Even with the uptick in the quality of high school football in the state, Jones knows he still must recruit nationally. And he’s doing that.

He once again secured a commitment from a coveted quarterback prospect – Adrian Martinez of Fresno, California. Martinez initially committed to Cal before changing his mind and settling on the Vols.

This is in keeping with Jones’ stated philosophy of signing at least one quarterback in every recruiting class. In 2015, it was Quinten Dormady from Boerne, Texas. Last year, it was Jarrett Guarantano from Lodi, New Jersey.

It is interesting that even with the improved level of high school talent inside the state, Tennessee seldom produces a big-time quarterback prospect. Although in-state quarterbacks have started a game or two for the Vols over the previous 25 years, the last homegrown quarterback who started a complete season was Andy Kelly of Dayton, Tennessee in 1990-91.

With preseason training camp fast approaching, the focus soon will switch to the season-opener against Georgia Tech. For now, though, Jones is doing what he can to fortify his position by selling the Big Orange brand to recruits.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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