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2015 NSD –– Christmas in February

Butch-Jones-NSD-1If I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times. And when I heard it from a particularly articulate friend via text on Tuesday evening, just hours before National Signing Day, I decided to dig deeper.

I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve, he wrote.

Me, too. What is it about NSD we love so much?

Hope. Anticipation. 

My friend’s words stuck with me long past the point when hope and anticipation officially became Tennessee’s second consecutive top-5 recruiting class. Because my friend nailed it with two simple words.

Hope for and anticipation of a school’s bellwether program and the legion of fans that follow its every move. (Worth noting: bellwether’s literal meaning is “leading sheep of a flock.”) The program those same fans once took for granted. At least its relevance and preeminence, both long lost during the historically dark stretch that swallowed the program in the years that followed Phillip Fulmer’s tenure.

Even so, in the debris that littered the landscape between what once was and what could again — what should again — be, each and every year there has been that one day where hope and anticipation reigned supreme. Even during Derek Dooley’s time.

Granted, the hope and anticipation fell flat under Dooley’s watch, but it didn’t change the fact that Vol fans still waited with bated breath for the day that serves as a harbinger of things to come.

National Signing Day.

The professional equivalent is the NFL draft. It, too, is a harbinger of things to come. It, too, is analyzed and dissected by multiple media outlets, what with the plethora of mock drafts offered up as quickly as NFL fans can devour them.

But I’ve never heard any NFL fan liken the draft to Christmas.

With the NFL draft, millionaire executives pick the players. But in college, the players, most of them about as far away from millionaire status as it gets, choose the school, and, by extension, the fans that root for it.

And therein lies the magic. It feels good to be chosen. Especially by a group of young men whose athletic pedigree surpasses the level of achievement the team they’ve selected has displayed on the field.

Which goes back to the historically dark stretch. The good news is that the light is beginning to shine again. By no means is it blinding, but there is light, nevertheless. Ever more, in fact, despite the fact that the coach responsible has lost half of his games in his first two seasons.

The biggest reason it’s getting brighter and brighter on Rocky Top has been National Signing Day. Butch Jones is three for three when it comes to delivering on the day that matters most.

Remember the Joshua Dobbs flip? Easy to take for granted now, but that was quite an accomplishment. The rest of the class was a nice one, too, especially considering the time constraint Jones and his staff faced. He held onto Cam Sutton, Corey Vereen and Josh Smith, while adding Marquez North and others. Last year’s class has been well chronicled, and rightfully so. Which is why the roster is now with rising sophomores and juniors who have not only made a big difference in Tennessee’s level of overall talent, but will also continue to play such a role in bringing the shine back to the program.

And that only whets the appetite of the fan base. The incremental progress seen under Jones has fueled hope and anticipation to a level that could well be an all-time high. At least in the recruiting-service era. Hope for and anticipation of kids seeing the beauty that Vol Nation sees in our favorite team.

Yesterday, the kids spoke loud and clear. They see it. They get why this place is great. They understand why we line up for the Vol Walk. Why we lose our minds when that T opens up. Why we sing RockyTop with reverence ordinarily reserved for Biblical Hymns. Why we travel to Jacksonville in droves. Why we cheer on the boys in orange, boys in orange mind you, like they’re demigods.

And they want to be a part of it.

The crown jewel of yesterday’s class was Drew Richmond, UT’s first five-star offensive lineman signee out of a high school in over a decade. But it wasn’t just that Drew picked Tennessee. It was exacerbated by the fact that Butch Jones managed to get him to flip his commitment to Ole Miss at the eleventh hour, a team that beat the Vols 34-3 just a few short months ago.

It was perhaps Butch Jones’ greatest statement in his statement-filled tenure as the man in charge.

Yes, the hope and anticipation that built to a crescendo was more than actualized yesterday. Still, history has shown that great classes are far from fool proof. (Ask Lane Kiffin.) But history has also shown that the teams that land the best classes over an extended period of time get the best results on the field. Ask Nick Saban. (And, ironically, his offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin.)

So while yesterday doesn’t guarantee that UT will take the next step in 2015 to once again becoming one of the league’s — one of the nation’s — premier programs, it does suggest that the odds are in Tennessee’s favor. Which brings me back to my friend’s simple two-word text.

Hope. Anticipation. This time, channeling not toward the first Wednesday in February, but to the first Saturday of September.

With back-to-back top 5 classes, odds are Vol fans won’t be let down. They sure weren’t yesterday.

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