Whatever became of Tennessee 'owning' national signing day?

Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / Running back Alvin Kamara was a touted member of Tennessee's top-five signing class in 2015 and helped the Volunteers to consecutive 9-4 seasons before leaving for the NFL. The Vols are just 20-27 in the four seasons since.
Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / Running back Alvin Kamara was a touted member of Tennessee's top-five signing class in 2015 and helped the Volunteers to consecutive 9-4 seasons before leaving for the NFL. The Vols are just 20-27 in the four seasons since.

The next college football coach who admits to signing a lousy recruiting class will be the first, but there was Butch Jones in February 2015 attempting to temper a crop that was ranked fourth nationally by 247Sports.com.

"I understand that with this class comes great expectations and very rightfully so," Jones said six years ago on national signing day. "I'm going to sit here like I do every signing day and guard against that in terms of these are still 17- and 18-year-old individuals. They are still going to develop at their own pace. Things don't get changed overnight.

"We are going through a process, but I thought today was a great step in the right direction."

The right direction lasted two years before the Tennessee train derailed, which has been reflected by a 20-27 record the past four seasons and the firings of both Jones and successor Jeremy Pruitt.

Today's traditional signing day arrives with the Volunteers ranked 15th nationally in this 2021 cycle but in flux with two four-star signees, outside linebacker Dylan Brooks and running back Cody Brown, having expressed a desire to be released. This year's precarious haul isn't too far off the average ranking of 13th that Tennessee has amassed in the last eight years, but Vols fans certainly have reason to be a bit wary when it comes to signees translating into victories.

After all, in the past eight football seasons, Tennessee doesn't have a single top-20 finish in the Associated Press poll, let alone a top-13th.

Tennessee's 2015 class contained Alvin Kamara, Kahlil McKenzie, Kyle Phillips, Drew Richmond, Shy Tuttle and Preston Williams, and it helped provide an immediate upgrade that yielded 9-4 records during the 2015-16 seasons. There was no lacking for praise when it came to Jones and his 2015 signees, who followed a 2014 crew that ranked seventh nationally and had receiver Josh Malone, running back Jalen Hurd, safety Todd Kelly and defensive end Derek Barnett.

"Tennessee has been a sleeping giant," former 247Sports.com director of scouting Barton Simmons told the Knoxville News-Sentinel six years ago. "They have the facilities, the stadium, the fan base and the resources. Then all it takes is for someone to sort of capture that and realize it. I think Butch Jones understood those advantages and really has been pretty masterful in taking advantage of those. He's taking advantage of legacies, taking advantage of commitments and using those guys to recruit other players.

"Butch Jones understands the big picture of recruiting. He has a great vision and a clear grand strategy. I've been as impressed with his overall grand strategy as any coach in the country since he's taken over."

photo Tennessee's Alvin Kamara (6) runs the ball in for a touchdown against Kentucky during the third quarter of play. The Tennessee Volunteers won over the Kentucky Wildcats with a final score of 49-36 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016.

Simmons wasn't alone, as ESPN professed, "Vols coach Butch Jones is starting to own national signing day. From the spiffy bow tie to the elite talent he's gathering in Knoxville, Jones is making Tennessee's presence known."

Jones was out after the 4-8 collapse of 2017, which marked the first eight-loss season in Tennessee's proud history, and along came Pruitt and his reputation as a stout recruiter. The Vols had consecutive classes of 13th in 2019 and 10th last year, but three members of those combined collections - running back Eric Gray, left tackle Wanya Morris and safety Key Lawrence - will be suiting up for the Oklahoma Sooners later this year.

Linebacker Henry To'o To'o and Quavaris Crouch are two more touted members of Tennessee's 2019 class who remain in the NCAA's transfer portal after the Pruitt era imploded with a 3-7 record and numerous NCAA Level I and Level II violations.

Adding to Tennessee's inability to look back fondly at recent signing classes is the stellar hauls of annual rivals Alabama and Georgia. Alabama will put the finishing touches today on the greatest recruiting class in history, according to the 247Sports rankings.

Nick Saban's Crimson Tide landed 14 top-100 prospects during December's early period, including 11 who already have enrolled. Since the early period, Alabama received a commitment from Camar Wheaton, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound running back from Garland, Texas.

Garland is rated by 247Sports.com as the nation's No. 2 running back and No. 33 prospect overall.

photo Missouri linebacker Joey Burkett tackles Tennessee runningback Alvin Kamara during the Vols' home football game against the Missouri Tigers at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Tennessee won their final home game of the season 63-37.

Graham to Alabama

In 1996, Jay Graham's 79-yard touchdown run with 2:17 remaining lifted No. 6 Tennessee to a 20-13 triumph over No. 7 Alabama inside Neyland Stadium.

Graham may not be so candid about that accomplishment now.

After spending this past season as Tennessee's running backs coach, Graham was announced Tuesday night as Alabama's new tight ends coach and special teams coordinator.

"Jay is well respected across the country for his knowledge of the game and his ability to recruit," Saban said in a statement. "He has experience at numerous schools across the SEC footprint with a proven track record for his ability to teach the game and develop young men both on the field and in life."

Graham also served as Tennessee's running backs coach in 2012. He spent the 2013-17 seasons in that role at Florida State and the 2018-19 seasons at Texas A&M.

Scholarship pulled?

According to AL.com, new Tennessee coach Josh Heupel pulled the scholarship of Roc Taylor, the three-star receiver prospect from Oxford, Alabama. Heupel's decision apparently did not sit well with Oxford High coach Keith Etheredge.

"That is bush league," Etheredge told AL.com. "It's just really crappy because Roc has been nothing but loyal to them. It's such a frustrating situation. When kids do the right thing and then coaches come in and do something like this to a kid - unbelievable.

"Some coaches get mad when a kid changes his mind at the last second. Well, it's hard to hold a kid accountable for something you are not willing to be accountable for yourself."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.