If this year’s football recruiting cycle were a game on the field, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said he and the rest of Tennessee’s coaches wouldn’t have walked into a fair fight.
Tennessee football coach Butch Jones speaks with reporters Wednesday afternoon.
The Vols’ staff had barely more than a month to salvage a recruiting class in the nation’s toughest conference — where being in the top 25 nationally on National Signing Day doesn’t come close to guaranteeing a spot in even top half of your own league.
“You know, you’ve really only got 30, 31 days to run,” said Thigpen, who coached at SEC rival Auburn the last few seasons. “It’s like you’re down 28-0 and you’re trying to make a comeback with five minutes left on the clock. You need four quarters for this.”
In keeping with that theme, the Volunteers at least put a few points on the board.
UT’s 21-player haul is, as of Wednesday night, 247Sports’ No. 27 class in the nation. It’s a bit better than that — No. 25 nationally — in the industry-generated 247Composite rankings.
That’s the good news.
But then there’s the bad news.
UT’s class is ranked 11th in the 14-team SEC. As of this moment, the Vols’ class is narrowly behind Arkansas and Mississippi State.
The Vols flipped a couple of good prospects on Wednesday, turning Top247 quarterback Joshua Dobbs from Arizona State and three-star defensive end Malik Brown from Syracuse. But they came up short on the rest, including five-star safety gem Vonn Bell, a Chattanooga native and lifelong UT fan who admittedly made a “business decision” to sign with Ohio State and announced that choice to a somewhat stunned auditorium in Ridgeland (Ga.) High School’s auditorium.
UT quarterback signee Joshua Dobbs, a Top247 prospect from Alpharetta (Ga.) High School.
Bell wasn’t the only big one that got away in the final weeks, and any one of several high-profile prizes certainly would have changed the rankings and perception of Wednesday’s results.
Recently hired UT head coach Butch Jones didn’t have the demeanor of a defeated man late Wednesday afternoon, though. The Vols’ new boss calmly sat down on the stage in Neyland Stadium’s ground-level media center and confidently insisted he was happy with the haul that he and his staff squeezed into a tough-and-tight window.
“It's an exciting day in our Tennessee football program as we welcome 21 individuals into our football family,” Jones said. “There's a lot that goes into a recruiting class, and there's a lot of great people here at UT that have done a great job of helping us assemble our recruiting class. I'd like to start off by thanking our coaches. I thought they did a tremendous job of helping and building relationships during a very short period of time — 31 days to be exact, with the permissible recruiting days that we've had to assemble this class.
“Recruiting is a relationship business. With all the challenges and obstacles, they did a great job of assembling a class that I think will represent the University of Tennessee not only on the field but off the field. I'm very proud of these individuals for showing their loyalty and their belief in our football program, but also respecting the values and traditions associated with this program.”
Thigpen and several other UT assistants relayed similar messages — albeit with fewer words.
“I thought we ran as good as we could,” Thigpen said. “I see the same thing that we did at Auburn. We ended up falling short on a lot of kids (the first year), but the next three years we finished up in the top-10.”
Receivers coach Zach Azzani — who didn’t arrive in Knoxville until after Wisconsin’s Jan. 1 Rose Bowl game against Stanford — emphatically agreed.
“What we did in 31 days was remarkable,” Azzani said. “From now on we’re gonna have 365 days to do it, and I’m excited about it. We made a lot of in-roads (this year) with coaches and kids that I think will really start the fireworks.”
UT receiver signee MarQuez North, a Top247 prospect from Mallard Creek (N.C.) High School.
Secondary coach Willie Martinez was even more adamant, saying the Vols “changed some people’s lives” in a short period of time.
Eight of the Vols’ 21 signees were committed to other programs at some point in the process,
“You're trying to undo a year or two of relationships in 31 days,” Jones said. “That's why I think our staff and our wives are so associated with our football program and did a fantastic job. I think the process is not just the coaches. It's a community. It's a fan base. You'd be amazed at the amount of individuals with parents who will come a day early and they just walk around the town. They'll walk in and ask directions at a gas station.
“The way our fans and Knoxville greets recruits is very special and unique to Knoxville. The fan base and the people in this area did a great job.”
UT could have signed as many as 27 players in the Class of 2013, which means the Vols could potentially add as many as six more prospects before the start of next season.
This class might be completed, though. In addition to the fact that UT’s already very close to the 85-scholarship NCAA maximum — rules would have allowed the Vols to sign as many as 27 this year, but they’d still have to keep the total on-scholarship number to 85 or less — Jones said he had no desire to add simply for the sake of addition.
"We were extremely selective in this process,” Jones said. “I think a lot of times when you're late, you tend to offer scholarships that you look back and wish you’d kept. We were extremely selective in the process. We had a formula for the type of player that we need to attract here in Knoxville. I think we were able to attract high-level character players, and that was the foundation. A lot of coaches say, "We're going to live it every day in our football program.’
“It stems with a passion for a college degree and a family background. And then, do they fit in? Do they fit the criteria we're looking for?”
UT D-line signee Jason Carr, a Top247 prospect from White Station High School in Memphis.
This was Jones’ first year recruiting as an SEC coach, but some on his staff had experienced the meat grinder. And at least one of those coaches thinks his boss had a good debut — and a really good debut, given the circumstances.
“We’ve got a great head coach, and he’s a great closer,” Thigpen said. “We just ran out of time. I think next year, when we got 365 days, it’s gonna make a difference.”
Jones didn’t disagree, saying he enjoyed his first year of SEC recruiting battles and is looking forward to more of them down the road.
"Everything is competitive in the SEC,” Jones said. “Everything every day is fourth-and-1 for the Super Bowl. Our coaches understand that. Recruiting is a daily process, it's an hour-by-hour process. The one thing that you can't put a price tag on is relationships. Recruiting is a relationship business, and you're trying to work as fast as you can to build those relationships. Secondly, at UT we have a great brand. It's a national brand. I think the opportunity to play for it, getting them on campus was the biggest thing. Once they got on campus, they could feel the energy and the excitement that surrounds the program.
“But it was a challenge. Like we said, every great program goes through its trials and tribulations and storms. The storms here are gone. You can see the sunshine coming through the clouds.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247