From the time he was hired, Tennessee’s Butch Jones has spent practically every waking second recruiting.
He had 31 days to salvage what was left of the Vols’ 2013 class following Derek Dooley’s firing and then to add to it.
It’s daunting enough in the SEC going up against the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and LSU on the recruiting trail, but Jones was out there trying to sell a program that’s had just one winning season in the past five years.
Only Kentucky has won fewer SEC games over the past five years than Tennessee, which goes a long way toward explaining why it’s been a revolving door lately on Rocky Top.
Jones will be the Vols’ fourth head coach in the past six years.
His sales pitch to recruits has been simple: Be that group of players that returns Tennessee to prominence.
“Those days are over with,” Jones said of the instability that has hounded the Vols’ program ever since the end of Phillip Fulmer’s Hall-of-Fame tenure. “You win with consistency and continuity, and the players walking in now do so to a very stable situation. That was our first message to recruits.
“The second was that we always talk about making an impact and building your legacy. It’s easy to go to a program that’s established and winning right now. We want individuals who believe in our vision and have enough confidence in themselves that they want to come to Tennessee and get this program back to its rightful place.”
Jones has trumpeted Tennessee’s rich tradition at every turn and is quick to point out that the last five years have only been a blip.
“Since 1927, we’re the all-time winningest college football program in the country,” he said.
Along those same lines, he’s reached out to former Tennessee players and made the rounds meeting with them. Peyton Manning will speak at the Vols’ coaching clinic this spring.
“They’re the ones who laid the foundation for this program,” Jones said. “They put the sweat in. I want our current players to embrace them and know all the great players who wore the Power T. This is a very prideful program, and it starts with our tradition.”
Ultimately, Jones will be judged as a recruiter more on the 2014 class than this past one. Even so, his first class at Tennessee was ranked anywhere from 20th to 30th nationally by the analysts, which is certainly respectable given how little time he had to make inroads with recruits and their families.
But within the realm of the SEC, the Vols were ranked 10th out of 14 teams.
Obviously, recruiting rankings aren’t the end-all, but they are a gauge. The talent gap right now between Tennessee and the elite teams in this league remains significant, especially in terms of depth.
But Jones is convinced that this first class helped closed that gap, and he expects to make up even more ground in the 2014 class.
“This class will really be the foundation for our program for many years to come,” said Jones, who’s won four conference championships in his six seasons as a head coach at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
Getting two quarterbacks in this class was a priority for Jones, and the Vols were able to flip Joshua Dobbs of Alpharetta, Ga., from Arizona State at the last minute. Riley Ferguson of Matthews, N.C., was also a four-star prospect.
Back when the Vols had it rolling under Fulmer, they made a living recruiting in the Carolinas.
Leonard Little, Shaun Ellis, Albert Haynesworth, Jay Graham and Robert Ayers all come to mind.
So going into Charlotte and landing heralded receiver MarQuez North was a huge get. The 6-4, 214-pound North was widely considered the top prospect in the state and could be an immediate contributor in 2013 when you consider that Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Zach Rogers are all gone.
The Vols were also able to hold onto Memphis defensive lineman Jason Carr, who was committed to the previous staff, but had interest from several other schools after Dooley was fired.
“I’m proud of those guys for believing in us and believing in our vision and the future of Tennessee football,” Jones said. “We have a great brand to sell. We have a brand new $50 million facility and one of the most passionate fan bases in the country. Everything is here.
“Tennessee is a very special place, and I can promise you that we’re all motivated to put a product on the field that makes everyone proud.”