Wiedmer: UT should improve with Jones' first class

Wiedmer: UT should improve with Jones' first class

February 7th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee football head coach Butch Jones addresses the media regarding new recruits Wednesday in the Stokely Family Media Center at Neyland Stadium.

Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - For just the second time since he became the Tennessee football coach on Dec. 7 of last year, Butch Jones will return to his Cincinnati home Friday to spend some long overdue quality time with his wife Barbara and three sons.

"I'm going to watch [Alex] play basketball that night," Jones said Wednesday afternoon following his national signing day news conference. "It will be the first day I've taken off since I was hired."

He'd earlier quipped, "I'm going to buy stock in 5-Hour Energy."

Hard work doesn't always bring results. And after enduring four losing seasons in the past five years, the Big Orange Nation wants results they can believe in, results that -- as one UT athletic department employee noted Tuesday -- "bring hope for a brighter future."

But take away every Volniacs' disappointment that Ridgeland High School five-star product Vonn Bell stiff-armed his UT-loving childhood in favor of Ohio State, and there's a lot within this 21-member recruiting class Jones just inked to bring hope.

No, it's not Alabama or Florida strong, and that's an obvious concern when you're facing both those recruiting goliaths on the field every autumn.

In fact, within an SEC continuing to sign an embarrassment of recruiting riches, the Volunteers' haul almost looked as if it should have been pushed around in a stolen shopping cart by a homeless coach.

According to ESPN's recruiting class rankings, the Vols finished 29th nationally, which means they were 10th in the 14-team SEC, leading only Arkansas (31), Missouri (37) and Kentucky (40).

Even Vanderbilt (22) topped the Vols, which means Jones and his staff -- whom he's labeled "the best in America" -- clearly have some work to do.

Of greater concern may be that seven of ESPN's top 11 call the SEC home, which means UT's got a really big mountain to climb to again become relevant in America's nastiest football league.

But Jones was also right to observe: "Everyone forgets that these are 17- and 18-year-old kids who have never taken a snap in a college football game."

And we do forget that -- along with the fact that however more accurate recruiting rankings are than 20 years -- no one knows for sure how good these signees will become until they've been smacked around a couple of times by upperclassmen.

The SEC is a man's league. These are still kids. Some grow up. Some drop out. The recruiting stars by their name don't always predict either outcome.

As one sifts through the Vols' seven 4-star prospects (according to ESPN), 13 3-stars and one 2-star signee from eight states, two quotes from Wednesday's presser should never be forgotten.

The first comes from recruiting coordinator Zach Azzanni, who said of the haul, "What we did in 31 (recruiting) days was remarkable. Now let's get rolling on the 2014 class now that we've got 365 days."

Noting that his staff was already contacting 2014 recruits on Wednesday, Jones added, "We were extremely selective. We had a formula for the kind of player we need to attract to Knoxville. Character, passion for a college degree and family background were all very important to us."

Then he delivered his only thin barb at the previous coaching regime: "You're trying to undo one or two years worth of relationships in 31 days."

If this was a dig at the way Derek Dooley's staff handled the recruitment of Bell, so be it. The Bell family never felt the love it craved from the former UT coach and his staff and it almost certainly influenced his decision to choose Ohio State.

Nor should anyone find fault with Bell for that decision. Unlike Alabama, where he would have likely waited more than a year to see the field following a redshirt year, Bell should see limited action with the Buckeyes his first season, then start his second. And every year there will be a potential BCS bowl season, unlike the Vols.

But given the immense amount of energy Jones and his staff put into recruiting Bell, it seems a little wrong for the recruit or his family to say this all started too late. If this really was his dream school for most of his life, their late push should have been enough. Is there a member of Big Orange Nation anywhere who would have turned down the Vols at any time if they earnestly came calling?

Nevertheless, Bell apparently led with his head rather than his heart, which just shows he's closer than most his age to being ready for the NFL in three or four years.

Yet a point Jones made when asked about Bell is also significant.

"We spent the same amount of time with Bell as anyone," he said. "But I'd rather talk about our Volunteers than someone else's players."

That philosophy would also serve the Big Orange Nation well from this day forward.