KNOXVILLE — There was enough time on the clock for a few desperation drives.
Tennessee pulled close as time expired, but only time will truly tell if the Volunteers and new coach Butch Jones won with their first signing class.
With a month's worth of recruiting days with which to work, Jones and his staff inked 21 players on national signing day, and though Tennessee landed two defensive linemen and a four-star dual-threat quarterback on Wednesday, it missed on the biggest prize, Ridgeland's Ohio State-bound five-star safety Vonn Bell.
From that perspective, Wednesday was unlike last year, when the lone signing-day addition was receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, the jewel of the class.
“We've been there, and there's nothing and no substitute for experience,” Jones said of the last-minute recruiting that comes with being at a new program. “This is our third time coming in, and I think we were able to hit the ground running. It was a seamless transition because we have been together for so long.
“We assembled the staff very quickly, but then the recruiting restrictions and recruiting calendar … you're only allowed one visit per week and the head coach is only allowed one visit per prospect, so that really challenges you, not only getting them up here on official visits, but getting some individuals back on multiple visits on unofficial visits. A lot of these individuals were committed — eight of them were committed to other institutions. You're trying to undo a year or two year's worth of relationships in 31 days.”
The limited time relegated the Vols to second- and third-place finishes for a handful of big-name recruits such as Bell, five-star defensive Carl Lawson, four-star tailback Johnathan Ford and U.S. Army All-American linebacker E.J. Levenberry.
Despite some of the misses, Tennessee's class crept up to anywhere between 20th and 30th nationally in the team rankings of the four main recruiting services, which was good for only 10th or 11th in the unforgiving SEC.
“When we were at Auburn our first year there, I think we ended up in the top 15,” linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said of the similar situation with the Tigers' class in 2009. “We call it being in the fourth quarter. It's like you're down 28-to-nothing and you're trying make a comeback with five minutes left on the clock.
“You need four quarters for this. I thought we ran as good as we could, and I think it's the same thing we did at Auburn. At Auburn we ended up falling short on a lot of kids, but the next three years, we finished up in the top 10.”
Tennessee's assistants appeared confident that the results a year from now would be better with a full year to recruit a 2014 class that features a very good in-state crop and a handful of legacy prospects with family ties to the program.
“Everything is competitive in the SEC,” Jones said. “Every day you go to work it's fourth-and-one for the Super Bowl to win the game. Our coaches understand that.
“Recruiting is a daily process. It's an hour-by-hour process, and the one thing that you can't put a price tag on is relationships. Recruiting is a relationship business, so you're trying as fast as you can to build those relationships.”
In this class, the Vols addressed needs at receiver, tight end and defensive back and added three linemen on each side of the ball, which was key with a number of rising seniors along both lines.
Jones said he received a text message from friend, former Super Bowl-winning quarterback and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who believes Tennessee's two-quarterback haul of Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs, a signing-day flip from Arizona State, was the nation's best.
Yet Tennessee signed just one linebacker and failed to nab an elite tailback, and both lines will be the most important positions for the Vols' next signing class.
“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've got 365 days … it's going to make a difference.
“The first quarter is right now, and we're in the data-minding process. You're finding all the kids, identifying where they're at, who's the decision makers — a lot of these things we had to find as we went along. I think with the intensity of the staff that we have, we'll be competitive year-in and year-out.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...