#1 recruiting class: Explaining how Butch Jones has shocked college football fans everywhere
Posted by: Pete Roussel on Sunday July 21, 2013
Despite a 5-19 record over the last three seasons against SEC opponents, the Tennessee Volunteers currently hold the #1 overall recruiting class in the country.
It goes to show you what new leadership and different outlook can do for a program.
According to 247Sports, the Vols have secured twenty-three commitments so far including one 5-star, eight 4-stars, fourteen 3-stars, and one 2-star prospect. While high school talent in the state of Tennessee is better than publicized, only 5 of 24 commitments come from in-state players, so the Vols have gone to GA, OH, CA, TX, FL, DC, MD, VA, IL, and IN to secure commitments.
The question is: How has first-year head coach Butch Jones and his coaching staff been able to overcome a major lack of success in the program since 2007, the last time the Vols won ten games and competed for an SEC championship, to earn the #1 overall recruiting ranking?
In short, it's a group of coaches working together on the same page. It's Butch Jones' attitude and endless passion to connect with the Vols' fan base to restore the pride in what Jones calls "one of the most storied programs in all of college football."
It's Jones' demand that all of his coaches effectively utilize social media. It's a marketing team that is willing to constantly spread Jones' message and capture what make the Vols' head coach and his philosophy unique.
Certainly, don't overlook the important of the newly built $50 million football facility enhancements.
You can also point to a head coach that heard people that questioned his ability to recruit in the SEC. After all, the SEC isn't the MAC or the Big East.
But at the end of the day, it is about hiring a group of guys that believe in the same vision, high expectations, working passionately, redeveloping a brand, connecting with a fan base, creating momentum, and capitalizing on that momentum.
For any organization to thrive, everyone involved must be on the same page. The one thing about Jones is that he knows exactly what he wants to do on offense, defense, and special teams.
Jones clearly recognized the value of staff chemistry, and thus hired nine coaches that he felt would work best together including his three coordinators from Cincinnati.
It all starts with the coaching staff, five of whom followed Jones from Cincinnati to Knoxville. While wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni spent last season at Wisconsin, he also previously coached under Jones at Central Michigan. Jones hired veteran SEC assistants Tommy Thigpen and Willie Martinez, who both coached at Auburn in 2012. Jones also retained Jay Graham, who later opted to join the Florida State staff, so Jones turned to Robert Gillespie, another coach with SEC experience. By now, you wonder if Graham and Tee Martin, who had a chance to join the staff, have spent any time second-guessing their decisions, although many it's easy to respect Martin's decision to remain at USC after only one season.
As Jones pointed out to ESPN's Scott Van Pelt during an interview in May, "This is our third time as a coaching staff taking over a program. We understand how to lay the foundation. You can never waver. You just put your head down and keep grinding."
One of the things that Jones has been able to use to his advantage than the previous staff didn't have is the newly built $50 million dollar training center.
In January, I spent an afternoon touring the facility. The team meeting room rivals in any college football and new wall decorations have put a swagger back in the facility. The strength & conditioning center is exceptional, but not gaudy. The training room is first class. Most importantly, it's new and that means something to showcase to recruits. It also shows the commitment to get Tennessee football back to where it once was.
Tennessee has also cranked up their social media presence.
While Derek Dooley and his staff failed to take advantage of social media, Butch Jones clearly recognizes its power. Jones told the Sports Animal 99.1 FM in Knoxville in February, "The social media is a sign of the times. If you don't keep up with it, if you don't stay on top of it, you're going to get left behind. Obviously it's a great forum. It's a great way to reach out to our fan base, but for recruiting as well. Every individual on our staff has to use it just because it's another tool for the recruitment process."
The Vols' coaching staff constantly illustrates their passion about coaching for (not at) Tennessee. Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni recently told the Sports Animal 99.1 in Knoxville, "There is nowhere else than you would rather go than the SEC, than Tennessee. That's not some coach-speak. That's not some pamphlet that I've reading off. That's the truth. People forget that we're also dads, husbands, and we also have kids that go to school. Knoxville is a great place. My family is very important to me. There is nothing more than we'd like better than to stay here as long as we can."
As of today, Jones has over 82,000 followers on twitter. The official twitter account of Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football), which is as good as any twitter account in college football at spreading the message of the program, now has close to 70,000 followers.
If you're a Tennessee student, alum, or fan with a twitter account, chances are that you're going to come across several positive-related articles, photos, videos, or radio interviews during the day. Thus, attitudes change and momentum forms.
I use to work for David Cutcliffe at Ole Miss. Cutcliffe is one of the all-time great Tennessee coordinators. He regularly reminded our staff that if you say things repeatedly and sincerely to young people, they're eventually going to believe you.
I think that what Jones has done. For example, it's one thing to say "Quite simply, it's Tennessee" when asked why he took the job, but Jones has a way of making people think that's really why he took the job.
Without question, no coach in college football has done more interviews this off-season than Jones. It's not even close. I mean, the guy lands in Miami with his two sons for Game 5 of the NBA Finals, and proceeded to hop on 104.5 The Zone in Nashville for a radio interview.
That particular radio interview went viral, and the next thing you know is that young people and recruits know that Butch Jones is at Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Pretty cool, huh?
By capturing their fans via social media, the Tennessee fan constantly hear Butch Jones' message. For example, Jones told to 92.9 in Atlanta in February, "The clouds are going away, and you can see the ray of sunshine. We have a great product, we have great people. It was a very, very easy decision. We have great leadership from our administration here. We have everything in place."
Let's face it, Derek Dooley regularly drained the Vols' fan base with "we're not, we can't, we haven't, we still don't...". I often wondered if UT players that watched TV or read the internet became frustrated because the challenge seemed almost unattainable. It seemed as though once a position group achieved one goal, there was always another problem.
Outside of Jones' comment about being 15 practices behind (because of no bowl practices), everything Jones says is about where the program is going. He has excelled at eliminating distractions, while Dooley himself created distractions.
One of the quotes I most vividly remember from this off-season came from linebackers coach Tommy Thipgen, who painted a great picture of Jones after the first practice coming off of spring break, which is typically a sluggish practice for most college teams.
Thigpen said, "No, no, no. I think Coach (Jones) kind of set the tempo, today. He was on fire this morning. He was going after everybody. The tempo got set early this morning, about 7AM this morning. He was ripping coaches; he was ripping players. I thought the tempo was probably the best we've had since we've been here. He was on fire. He didn't want us to lose any days of practice. He came out on a mission."
Yes, National Signing Day is over six months away. Presumably, the Vols are still targeting the three remaining 4-star in-state prospects that are undecided.
The program is heading in the right direction under Jones, and if the Vols can close with a big-time quarterback and a couple of defensive lineman, it's certainly possible to finish with a Top 5 class.
Remember, nothing is more important in returning to Atlanta than having an elite quarterback and a stout defensive line unit.
If Tennessee wins seven games and plays a much better brand of football than we saw last season, Jones will be well on his way to restoring the glory of Tennessee football.
Based on what's happening now, I wouldn't put it past Jones and his staff. Not with this mindset. (Watch this video)
Here's how the class shapes up:
RB: 5-star (TN), 3-star (GA)
WR: 4-star (IN), 4-star (CA), 3-star (TX)
TE: 3-star (IL), 3-star (OH)
OL: 3-star (GA), 3-star (VA), 3-star (FL)
Ath: 3-star (FL), 3-star (MD), 3-star (TN), 2-star (MD)
DL: 4-star (OH)
LB: 4-star (FL), 4-star (TX), 4-star (AL), 4-star (GA)
DB: 4-star (TN), 4-star (GA), 4-star (DC), 3-star (TN)
Kicker: 2-star (TN)