KNOXVILLE — National signing day went according to script for the University of Tennessee, and it meant an earlier finish than usual for Butch Jones and his coaching staff.
There was nothing in the way of drama or surprises for the Volunteers, who put the finishing touches on their 2017 recruiting class with 22 signees.
"It's probably the least drama we've had on signing day," Jones said Wednesday afternoon.
In the national rankings, Tennessee finished 11th according to 247Sports.com and 15th according to Rivals.com and ESPN.
The perception, however, is the class is a clear step down for Jones and the Vols on the heels of top-five classes in 2014 and 2015 and a smaller 2016 class that wound up ranked 15th by multiple services.
"We're excited," Jones said, "because we thought we were able to add some dynamic football players, some players that have great grit and great toughness and have that great competitive spirit. We wanted some individuals who don't necessarily love recruiting but love football. That's what makes this class, we think, very, very balanced from top to bottom.
"When I talk about dynamic players, you can also be an offensive lineman or a defensive lineman and be a dynamic football player. As we all know in the SEC, it's a line-of-scrimmage (league). We thought we were able to address the depth concerns that we've had in our program in our offensive and defensive lines."
With four-star recruit LaBryan Ray choosing to stay in his home state and play for Alabama as expected, the only surprise for Tennessee was that longtime in-state commitment Princeton Fant wasn't announced as a signee. The LaVergne wide receiver, whose past two seasons were derailed by multiple knee surgeries, will join the Vols as a blueshirt, meaning he can't take an official visit or sign a letter of intent and will start at Tennessee as a walk-on, then go on scholarship and count toward the 2018 class.
The Vols emphasized recruiting on defense by signing six linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. They also filled the biggest needs on offense with a trio of running backs and a pair of tight ends.
Tennessee's past three classes were heavy on five- and four-star prospects — 18 in 2014, 17 in 2015 and 11 in 2016, according to Rivals.com — but the 2017 haul is heavier on three-star players the coaching staff believes are either underrated by recruiting services or have enough upside to outperform those ratings.
There's certainly a developmental element to this class.
"That's part of it," Jones said. "They all develop differently, but you have to have the ability to maybe look at a young person that maybe just turned 17 years old, and you kind of have to project where will they be. You have three to five years with them.
"Where will they project to be when they get into a full strength and conditioning program on a collegiate level, a full nutrition plan on the collegiate level? Some of that is we're in the developmental business, and I think that's a special skill set to be able to say, 'OK, he's right here, but I project him in a year or two to be right there.'"
Tennessee made up for signing just three players from Georgia by luring seven from Florida, but the Vols fell short with some other higher-rated prospects, including a couple of in-state stars. Jones noted that "each year is a little bit different" where recruiting is concerned and said it's important to find prospects who "truly fit your recruiting profile."
"We were able to sign seven from the state of Tennessee, and we're excited about those individuals. We signed the No. 1 player in the state of Tennessee and the No. 1 player overall in the country," Jones said in reference to offensive lineman Trey Smith.
"It's what you need, too, because you're only going to take X amount of players at this position. We knew we were going to take three linebackers. That's the number we had set. We knew we had to take three running backs if we could find the right three. We knew we needed to take a number of wide receivers (and) two tight ends. It was paramount for us to get three corners and two safeties.
"We had to turn away very, very talented football players, unfortunately, because of our numbers and what we needed with this current football team, and probably had to turn away more talented players than we've had since we've been here."