Tennessee has a quiet but successful signing day

Tennessee has a quiet but successful signing day

February 6th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

University of Tennessee NCAA college football signees Jakob Johnson, of Jacksonville, Fla., left, Von Pearson, of Newport News, Va., and Jalen Hurd, of Hendersonville, Tenn., walk in Neyland Stadium after being introduced on Wednesday.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Butch Jones noted on multiple occasions throughout Wednesday how his day was devoid of much drama.

For the most part, the Tennessee football coach's signing day lacked the typical surprises and twists that have become the norm on college football recruiting's biggest day.

And for Jones, that was perfectly fine.

For the Volunteers, signing day was instead about the culmination of a touted class that Jones believes will improve his program and set a foundation for his goal of returning Tennessee back to the SEC's elite.

"When I say not a lot of drama, you still never feel good until that fax machine comes in, so I was still as nervous as I've ever been," Jones admitted long after the ink dried on a haul that finished in or around the nation's top five classes.

"Our coaches did a tremendous job of building that loyalty, building that trust, building that togetherness. You never feel good until the fax comes in, but our coaches did a tremendous job of really securing the class."

What a class it was for Jones and his staff, who's tireless efforts turned into one of the nation's biggest recruiting surprises.

Tennessee finished anywhere from fourth (Scout.com) to seventh (247sports) in various recruiting rankings, and both Rivals.com and ESPN ranked the Vols in their top five.

University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones talks about the NCAA college football team's signing class on Wednesday in Knoxville.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

In each of those four recruiting service's rankings, Tennessee finished behind Alabama, Florida State and LSU, and the Vols found themselves in the top 10 among the likes of Ohio State, Auburn, Texas A&M, Florida and Georgia.

That Tennessee, coming off a third consecutive 5-7 season, finished among some of the nation's best and most successful programs only made the job Jones and his staff did even more impressive.

"We talk about doing everything with a relentless approach in everything that we do," Jones said. "I think it's just a part of the relentless approach. Our assistant coaches have done a tremendous, tremendous job.

"These were highly recruited individuals -- that doesn't make them any better football players -- but for us to get to where we need to get back to the elite level within the SEC, we need to be able to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the country, and I felt that we were able to do that this year."

After adding 14 players as early enrollees a month ago, Tennessee signed 18 players on Wednesday. Two players signed elsewhere -- defensive lineman Cory Thomas (Mississippi State) and offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. (Oklahoma) -- but the Vols did add Michael Sawyers, a four-star defensive tackle out of Ensworth in Nashville.

Once at 34 players, Tennessee finished with 32 in this class, and Jones said too much was made about the Vols' numbers, long one of the biggest questions surrounding the class.

"We made a big deal out of it, and it's really nothing," he said. "Everything we do is approved by the SEC. This was a plan that we've had in place for over a year."

With most of the skill-position talent, including tailback Jalen Hurd, receiver Josh Malone, two promising tight ends and three offensive linemen among that group of January enrollees, Tennessee's signing day was dominated by defensive players.

The Vols finished with eight defensive linemen, five linebackers and six defensive backs in the class, and 12 of Tennessee's 19 defensive additions were rated as four-star prospects by both Rivals and 247sports, which should upgrade what defensive coordinator John Jancek has at his disposal.

"All these guys, I told them all, 'Come in ready to compete, ready to play,'" Jancek said. "The thing that'll do is it'll create some lumps for us early. We know that. We understand that, but we're building for the future here. This is a long-term process. There's no quick fix.

"You look at our recruiting class, we didn't go out and get a lot of junior college players -- we had a couple where we needed to -- but by and large we fulfilled this class with freshmen, and they're gonna be thrown into the fray early. That's just part of the process, but we're developing our team for the future, and I think that's what's most important."

While Jones admitted he wanted to "guard against all the expectations" the heralded class and called prematurely judging it "very unfair," Tennessee's second-year coach said he knew early on he and his staff were bringing in a special class.

"When we would lose a game or two," Jones said, "they'd call me and say, 'Hey Coach, we got your back. We're not going anywhere. We're committed to getting this done.' ... It's easy for kids to say, 'I'm going to school A or school B because they're winning right now.'

"It takes a different, a special person to say, 'Hey, I want to go to this school because I want to be the difference. I want that onus, I want that ownership on our class, on me, to get Tennessee football back to its rightful place. When we're talking about competitiveness, that's one of the things I looked at.

"That's what I liked about all of these individuals, is when we had some setbacks this season, they didn't flinch one bit."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.