Nothing epitomizes the year-round nature that college football has become more than recruiting. Coaches spend Friday nights before games at local high schools watching the best high school football players in the area. Athletic department budgets allocate sizable sums of money for coaches to travel in order to recruit nationwide. Boosters provide private jets to shuttle recruiting coaches around. And fans get obsessed with rankings of high school players who play in widely disparate circumstances and situations. And with only one game remaining in the 2014 college football season, fans across the nation are turning their impatient attention to their teams’ recruiting efforts and the ubiquitous national recruiting rankings.
Tennessee Recruiting Snapshot
Things are no different in Knoxville. What is different around the Tennessee Volunteers program are expectations. Coming off a convincing bowl victory – the first for the program since 2008 – Tennessee fans are sensing that the program is close to getting back to national prominence. The momentum and expectations built in Jacksonville are now carrying over to the recruiting monitoring. We are just over a month from National Signing Day (NSD) and here is what the Tennessee 2015 recruiting class (Team 119 in Vol parlance) looks like and what it means to Tennessee.
Head Coach Butch Jones is close to wrapping up another great recruiting season. The Vols are a composite Top 5 class and ranked in the Top 6 in each of the four major recruiting services (247 Sports #5, ESPN #6, Rivals #5, and Scout.com #3). In addition, they have the #1 and #5 overall recruits from Scout.com rankings. Jones has proven to be one of the very best recruiters in the nation. In addition to a Top 5 class this year, he salvaged the 2013 class to a Top 25 ranking after being on the job for less than six weeks. Last year’s class, featuring impact players Jalen Hurd and Derek Barnett, was a consensus Top 7 class. All of this with two 5-7 seasons and a just-completed 7-6 campaign. If he can consistently deliver Top 10 classes with those records, Vol fans believe he can deliver even better classes once the coaching staff translates the talent into wins.
Jones and his staff focused heavily on the offensive side of the ball last year, getting top recruits Hurd, Josh Malone and Jashon Robertson. Robertson and DE Derek Barnett were both freshmen All-Americans this year. This year’s class is stacked with defensive talent. Defensive End Kahlil McKenzie (5*) is ranked the top overall recruit by Scouts.com and just turned in a dominating performance at the All-Army game. Joining him on the defensive line will be Kyle Phillips (4*), Darrell Taylor (4*), Shy Tuttle (4/5*), Marques Ford (4*), Quay Picou (3*) and Andrew Butcher (3*). This is easily the best defensive line recruiting in the nation. Tennessee also picked up four secondary players led by 4* cornerback Micah Abernathy. The Vols one gap on defense will be at linebacker, where they only have two current commitments – although one is 4* Darrin Kirkland – and they are already at minimal depth.
While putting together a great defensive haul, they did pick up two top-ranked quarterbacks, Quinten Dormady (3* Pro Style) and Jauan Jennings (4* ATH) , 5* running back Alvin Kamara to complement Jalen Hurd out of the backfield, and 4/5* Wide Receiver Preston Williams.
The Vols have 27 commitments already, so any additional commitments might have repercussions for the current class composition. Tennessee’s top remaining targets will be OT Pat Allen (4*), LB Quart’e Sapp (4*), current Ole Miss commit OT Drew Richmond (4*) and current LSU commit Ugo Amadi (4* ATH). Amadi was teammates with Kamara in high school and friends with Phillips and committed to LSU over Tennessee last week. Some think that with John Chavis’ departure from LSU, Tennessee might be able to flip him before NSD.
The biggest accomplishment with the 2015 class is that ten players have already enrolled in Knoxville and started football activities with the team, including most of the top talent in the class. Since Tennessee is still a very young team, many of the players will have to contribute as true freshmen, much like the 2014 class. The extra semester’s worth of weights, training tables and meetings will pay huge dividends for the 2015 class come September. Additionally, the extra academic semester will help the freshmen with grades and schedules as they can get several classes under their belts and grow accustomed to college life. Few will be candidates for red-shirts because of depth issues. Dormady, Butcher and Picou are the most likely candidates, but that’s a long way off.
The red-shirt issue is only one issue that Jones and his staff will have to work through. Six members of the 2014 class are no longer with the team. An overabundance of talent at a couple of positions (TE specifically) made some players unhappy with playing time. Two members had academic and discipline issues. While six departures from a 33-man class isn’t an alarm bell, it’s also not normal attrition after just one year. A Top 7 recruiting class doesn’t do much good if you can’t keep the talent in the program. If the pattern repeats a year from now, that will definitely be an alarm bell.
The other problem is that while a Top 5 class is great, two of the Top 4 teams are yearly opponents for the Vols (Alabama #1, Georgia #3) and there are two more SEC West teams in the Top 10 (Texas A&M #7, LSU #10). Tennessee must parlay their recruiting success into tangible performance and wins on the football field or else Jones’ recruiting luster might start to fade. Tennessee has one more year to build the program before competing for the East championship is a must.
Jones’ last problem will be expectation management during the “off-season.” He’s already started the “We’re still going to be a young team in 2015” narrative to try and dampen the expectation a little. Unfortunately, he will be a victim of his own success. Tennessee fans see two straight Top 10 classes, a strong bowl performance, a strong second half performance in 2014, great young talent in Barnett, Hurd and Josh Dobbs, and what looks to be weakened South Carolina and Florida programs. Vol fans see this and they want to get back to where they feel this program belongs in the national landscape.
To do so, Jones will have to turn all those stars into the checkerboards.
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