Greeson: UT Vols' Butch Jones gets A-plus for recruiting, C for on-field start

Greeson: UT Vols' Butch Jones gets A-plus for recruiting, C for on-field start

December 7th, 2013 by Jay Greeson in Sports - Columns

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones yells on the sidelines in this file photo.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Butch Jones' first year was filled with highs and lows. There was the high of beating South Carolina and the continued euphoria around a recruiting class that has rival fans scratching their heads.

Year One for Jones also included its fair share of speed bumps. The September quarterback song and dance of replacing Justin Worley with Nathan Peterman against Florida was ill-advised and gave the appearance that Jones kowtowed to public opinion. There also was the disappointing showing against Vanderbilt, the game that sealed the Vols' third consecutive postseason-less winter, considering the Vols looked underprepared and sluggish with their season hanging in the balance and coming off an off week.

But let's look deeper and break Butch down in four crucial categories:

Public perception -- B+

Jones was hired a year ago today. He was not Tennessee's first choice, a fact he joked about in his introductory news conference. There were a slew of Johnny Vols Fans across the area and the country who were underwhelmed by the hire after hoping for a bigger name with a higher profile.

Jones had work to do to repair the guts of the UT program, but he also had work to do to unite a proud fan base that had been dragged through the mud of a series of bungled decisions and rinsed with the bitter spirits of a budding dynasty of their most-hated rival.

So Jones worked and pressed the flash like Pappy O'Daniel. He was everywhere, and he floated catch phrases and cliches with a equal measure of hope and hype. Bash "Brick-by-brick" or "Team 117" if you like, but the messages and slogans worked for recruits and for fans starving for something in which to believe.

There are still those who are curious whether Butch can flip the script in Knoxville, but very few of them are in the Big Orange Nation, and that number is greatly smaller than what it was a year ago this morning.

In the locker room -- B+

The worst stretch in the modern era of the program bewildered a locker room of players who came to Knoxville to compete for titles in the SEC. They have competed the last three years to stay out of the basement in the SEC East. That's mainly because of the decisions made that were beyond the players' control, but the ripple effects were tangible and telling.

That said, the biggest ringing endorsement about a positive vibe for Jones, Year One, is the quotes and testimonials from the players, especially the departing seniors such as Daniel Hood and Jacques Smith and former players such as Jacques McClendon. (Hey, Butch is pretty popular with Jacqueses.)

On the field -- C

A lot of us expected a bowl trip and a 6-6 mark before the season, but that was before everyone knew that Missouri and Auburn were going to be the top teams in the league. Still, 6-6 was within reach until the final moments against Vandy, easily the most frustrating and confounding game for the Vols this season. It also was the game in which UT was most evenly matched, and the Vols could not finish Vandy at home. That fact is a troubling indictment of how far UT has to go to return to the upper echelon of the nation's best conference.

That loss would have been a little more understandable if it had happened in September, like the ugly loss against the worst Florida team in a generation or if it was in true freshman quarterback Josh Dobbs' first start. But it came in November, in the season's penultimate week, in Dobbs' third start, after an open week and with the season on the line.

As for player development, Jones and company advanced the special teams beyond anyone's expectations, considering Michael Palardy went from liability to likely being an NFL prospect and possibly being UT's offensive MVP. Defensively, UT was better than expected, but those less-than-lofty expectations were forged in the misguided and myopic fires stoked by the lunacy that was the disastrous Sal Sunseri experiment.

Offensively, there was only minor improvement, which can be pegged to the injuries and inadequacies at quarterback, but there also was little improvement at that position at any point through the season. And the much ballyhooed offensive line underachieved.

Even with the win over South Carolina -- UT's first over a ranked foe since everyone in Knoxville thought Lane Kiffin was flamboyant and clever and Eric Berry was still in Knoxville -- the product on the field all too often was average. Yes, the roster is under-talented, but other than Palardy and a couple of the freshman such as Cam Sutton and Marquez North, who on that roster improved noticeably this year?

Recruiting -- A+

Even the most avid Jones detractor cannot throw stones at the collection of talent Butch has assembled in a recruiting class that is viewed as the nation's second-best by every service that is regarded in such matters.

In fact, the only quibbles that can be offered, as minor as they seem, are that the commitments are only verbal and non-binding and there is not a quarterback in this class to date and it's likely there will not be one. The first one is a hollow attempt to devalue Jones' stellar recruiting efforts. The latter complaint is easily explained once you realize that the quarterbacks UT wanted already were in another fold, and with a roster with this many needs at this many positions, taking a quarterback just to take a quarterback does not make sense, numbers-wise.

Overall -- B that will be a B+ if Jones keeps this recruiting class together.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com