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Rucker: Vols on cusp of special day

After watching the Swiss Army conduct an impressive exercise in 1912, the mighty German Kaiser approached one of the Swiss soldiers and posed a fair, direct question.

Tennessee football coach Butch Jones (News Sentinel photo)

“You are quarter-of-a-million strong, and you shoot well, but what will you do if we invade you with 500,000 men?” the Kaiser asked.

“Shoot twice and then go home,” the Swiss soldier replied.

“Why,” you’re probably asking, “does that quote belong on a sports website?

That’s also a fair, direct question.

And here’s your answer: Tennessee football coach Butch Jones thinks exactly like that Swiss soldier. And tomorrow’s National Signing Day should deliver that message with a sniper’s accuracy.

Tennessee, on the surface, should not be able to sign one of the top five or ten classes in college football. But it will. And it will because Jones and his staff had the audacity to believe they could do it, as well as the acumen to achieve it.

Let’s be honest about a couple of things. First off, Tennessee, with its rich history and fancy facilities, is no underdog in the classic sense. But college football is no different from just about anything else in this world in that it’s cyclical. Everyone makes mistakes, and some must pay their penance for them. The mighty fall, and the meek rise. Such is life.

And life hasn’t been too kind to Tennessee football in the past decade. A decade that fell somewhere between deft and dominant was followed by one full of foils. Errors caused a gradual erosion, and, eventually, the Vols sank to the bottom. A few consecutive senior classes have left the program with losing career records, and Tennessee has missed a bowl game in each of the past three seasons.

Vols Top247 safety commit Todd Kelly Jr.

Even a decades-long doormat like in-state rival Vanderbilt — Tennessee’s chronically, comically deficient rival to the West — has piggybacked its way onto the pile to land a couple of gut kicks to its Big Orange Brother.

Tennessee’s outlook had gotten gloomy enough to keep several prominent coaches from accepting multi-million-dollar offers to coach one of the winningest programs in college football history. And who could blame them? Money has never been better in the coaching business, but job security has never been worse. We shouldn’t feel sorry for them — they chose to do this, and they’re paid extremely well to do it — but certainly we should understand their hesitancy to get behind the wheel of a program where everything but the expectations has dipped in the past decade.

Many Tennessee fans haven’t wanted to — or perhaps had the capacity to — understand the program’s plight in recent years. No one likes a rebuild, but that’s been the only plausible path for the Vols. 
Tennessee fell badly toward the back of the pack in college football’s toughest conference, a land where good teams often end the regular season with an even record in league play. And anyone who even entertains the thought of Alabama’s Nick Saban or LSU’s Les Miles or Georgia’s Mark Richt or South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier stopping for even a half-second to allow also-rans to catch up gives a new meaning to “fantasy football.” These men don’t stop, and they usually don’t slow down. They keep sprinting. And you have to catch them in just a few years, or you’ll be fired. Again, we shouldn’t feel sorry for the millionaires who languish at this level, but we should always understand the toughness of their tasks. It’s not for everyone — even, in some cases, for those who were born and raised in and around this league.

Occasionally, though, men like the Swiss soldier emerge. These men are wired with enough competitiveness to combat men twice their size. If you cut off their right arm, they’ll punch you with their left. If you cut off both arms, they’ll kick you. If you cut off their legs, they’ll bite you. If you cut out their teeth, they’ll head-butt you. They’ll use anything they have to succeed — and they always have something, because you can’t capture their will to win. They’re relentless.

And that’s what Jones and his staff have been on the recruiting trail. They have been absolutely relentless.

And that combination of relentless effort and relentless optimism is what has put Tennessee on the cusp of completing a nationally-elite class — a class that, on paper, looks leaps-and-bounds better than many programs with just as much money, nearly as much history and much more recent success than the Vols.

I’m well aware that I work for a website that focuses on the world of recruiting, but I’ve never been and might never be a recruiting expert. But I don’t believe you need a world-class knowledge of every tree to know what a forest looks like. With that in mind, here’s the forest: Tennessee has exceeded every expectation on the recruiting trail in this cycle. The Vols’ class isn’t just good. It looks really good. And it doesn’t seem to be Dolly Parton top-heavy, as some of the Vols’ recent classes have been. It looks deep. It looked balanced. It looks sturdy, addressing several long short-term and long-term needs on both sides of the ball.

This class is not perfect. No class is perfect, and this won’t be the first. Some players will be better than our analysts predicted. Some will be worse. No one gets every prospect they want, and no one gets every evaluation right.

Vols Top247 linebacker commit Dillon Bates

But the nation’s top programs either offered or considered offering a majority of Tennessee’s soon-to-be signees. It wasn’t just our evaluators at 247Sports who loved them. Coaches loved them, too. And they wanted them. And Tennessee got them, despite many of them knowing exactly what kind of inferior product has represented this program for several years. These kids aren’t dumb. They know what good football looks like, and they know Tennessee hasn’t looked good for a while.

Jones and his staff knew what they were selling, though — immediate playing time in the nation’s toughest conference, a good education, top-class facilities on and off the field and a chance to be one of the heroes who resurrected one of the nation’s proudest and most historically-prolific programs — and they sold it exceptionally well. They put guns in each hand and took down armies twice their size. They were, if nothing else, relentlessly resourceful. They understood the way modern kids worked, and they steadfastly stuck to their script, and that creative cocktail of new-school flair and old-school fundamentals produced a potentially-program-changing class.

If Jones and Co. continue recruiting like this, we’ll soon see what a fair fight looks like on the field.

And if this Tennessee staff works as hard and harmoniously on the field as it has on the recruiting trail, the Vols should at some point have a great chance to win those fights, too.

Winning on Saturdays won’t be an easy task.

But setting the table like this wasn’t such a simple thing, either.

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@247sports.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247

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