Vic Wharton got this class started for UT Vols

Vic Wharton got this class started for UT Vols

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

Independence's Vic Wharton III catches a pass against Beech on Sept. 13, 2013.

Photo by The Tennessean /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - It would take Vic Wharton a little while to do the math.

With the phone calls and the text messages, and the Twitter posts and other social media interactions, it's been a busy 13-plus months for the football star at Independence High School just south of Nashville.

Since becoming the first commitment for Tennessee's 2014 recruiting class on Christmas Day 2012, Wharton has done his part to build what eventually became a large, highly touted class by spearheading the peer-recruiting efforts of other prospects by Tennessee's early commitments.

"It's a bunch, thousands probably," he estimated last week.

Little did Wharton know what the Volunteers' class would become when he became the first 2014 commitment for Butch Jones, then Tennessee's new head coach.

Spring commitments from in-state stars tailback Jalen Hurd and safety Todd Kelly launched the Vols into the top five of multiple recruiting services' class rankings before Jones even coached his first game at Tennessee. At different times of the year, the Vols were atop one or multiple rankings. They finished signing day Wednesday with one of the SEC's best classes.

And Wharton always will be the one who started it.

"It's pretty exciting," he said. "I'm excited to get down there and play for Coach Jones. Just having everybody on board now, we're just ready for the season to get here now and get into the summer and get ready for summer workouts and get prepared to hopefully win a national championship soon."

Jones had been Tennessee's head coach for only a little more than two weeks when Wharton committed 408 days ago, but Wharton probably knew more about the new guy running the Vols' program than most of Knoxville.

As a sophomore at Christ Presbyterian Academy in Nashville, Wharton, who played at Knoxville's Catholic High School his freshman year of high school, received a verbal scholarship offer from Jones, then at Cincinnati. Wharton attended a camp there the summer before his junior season and attended a Bearcats game that fall.

The "family-oriented program" Jones ran with the Bearcats stood out to Wharton, and the two built a solid relationship before Jones left for Tennessee.

"He was really nice, and I really appreciated how comfortable I felt around him and just how he made everyone feel welcome at his program and letting everyone know about Cincinnati and what it was like to be there," Wharton said. "It was just showing you he cared about you as a player and also as a person, and that's what I was really looking for out of a coach.

"Coach Jones showed all those attributes."

Despite living in Knoxville and having multiple family ties to the Vols -- most notably his uncle Brandon, who played basketball at Tennessee in the late 1990s -- Wharton said he didn't grow up a Tennessee fan and "ended up growing more on them when I left Knoxville."

Yet when Jones landed the Tennessee job, Wharton said it was a "no-brainer" to follow his favorite coach.

"It was just an obvious decision for me when he took the job at Tennessee to go there," he said, "since I already loved him when he was at Cincinnati anyway."

With their first full signing class, Jones and his coaching staff have shattered expectations regarding their recruiting. It was perhaps the biggest question the four-time conference title winner at Central Michigan and Cincinnati faced when he took over a program trying to rebuild in the relentless SEC. How well could Jones recruit in the nation's toughest league?

Tennessee's 2014 class provides a resounding answer: According to Rivals, the Vols have two five-star prospects and four other four-star players already enrolled and signed another dozen four-star recruits Wednesday.

"I wasn't surprised by that," Wharton said. "I knew Coach Jones was going to be able to recruit and show that when he got there. I didn't think that was going to be a problem. I knew that people were going to be shocked by it, but me knowing him and seeing how he is with people, it was just, when you meet the guy, you just can't help but love him.

"I didn't think that was going to be a problem."

Figuring out his part in assembling the final product, though, is a different story.

"It's been awesome, just to know that I got this whole thing started with just being with Coach Jones and trying to help get the rest of the people on board, and I feel like I've done a pretty good job of that," Wharton said.

"I feel like we went out and got some great players and even greater people. That's what you look for for the program at Tennessee, and it's just make sure your character speaks before your reputation. I'm just ready to get there with the guys."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.