KNOXVILLE - Butch Jones will coach his 13th game at Tennessee when the Volunteers open the football season Sunday night against Utah State.
It's still very early in his tenure, and up to this point the impressive recruiting efforts of Jones and his staff are the biggest reason there's a sense of hope and belief in the direction of the program among its starving fan base.
Starting against the better-than-you-think Aggies at Neyland Stadium on the eve of Labor Day, Jones and his very young Vols will embark on a journey that will provide opportunities to provide more tangible evidence.
Reaching bowl eligibility, and in the process ending a three-year postseason drought, has been trumpeted by coaches and players as Tennessee's main objective for the season, but Jones doesn't believe success or failure in that regard will knock the Vols off the track he believes they're on.
"We have to continue to improve, but our recruits know what's in store," he said this month. "They understand that we're going through the realities of building a football program. For us, we need to develop to be the best possible football team we can. We cannot get caught up in the clutter and the distractions. We have to put our head down and work every day.
"That's our goal. Let's just be a better football team day in and day out, and what happens happens. We're very young. It cannot be an excuse, but it is what it is. Trust me, I've already learned that throughout training camp. There's good days, there's bad days and every opportunity's a teaching moment."
With just a month after being hired to finalize a class, Jones and Co. pieced together a 2013 group of recruits that produced a couple of All-SEC freshmen in receiver Marquez North and cornerback Cam Sutton. Four other players from that class figure to start as sophomores Sunday night. A few more enter the season in key reserve roles.
Tennessee's 2014 recruiting class, though, remains the feather in Jones' cap, along with the upset of South Carolina last October. The Vols built the class with a backbone of legacy recruits and locked down an impressive crop of players from the burgeoning Middle Tennessee area.
Tennessee landed players from Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia and North Carolina, too.
The two-deep chart the Vols released Monday afternoon included 19 newcomers from the class, and the impact those and other first-year players make will have a big hand in the trajectory of the season.
Time will tell, though, if the course of the season makes an impact either way on the Vols' recruiting for 2015 and beyond.
With less in the way of recruits with family ties to the program, the Vols have piled up 23 commitments, headlined by two five-star prospects in defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie and receiver Preston Williams and former Alabama tailback Alvin Kamara, who's playing at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.
Tennessee's class currently is ranked in the top 10 nationally, but the Vols remain in contention for some other top uncommitted prospects as they try to continue to improve the roster.
How the 2014 season goes could impact some of those recruits more than others, but Jones remains confident in himself, his coaches and the direction of his program.
"This is a great place," he said. "Our recruits understand that greatness lies ahead. We just have to continue to stay the course and build and work every single day, and it's a great opportunity out there. We have the greatest opportunity in the country for prospective student-athletes, to be part of something special when this thing gets going.
"We're making great strides as a football team and a football program. You can never look up; you just need to keep working each and every day.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.