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Top-5 Classes Are Now Old Hat For Jones

Butch-Jones-NSD-3One of my favorite parts of National Signing Day is attending the head coach’s press conference in the afternoon after most, if not all, of the work is done for that given year.

It’s not so much for me to hear about the prospects. Every coach at every school talks their guys up. Whether it’s a two-star preferred walk-on or a consensus five-star stud, the coaches are always going to rave about their character, upside, work ethic, potential etc. That’s fine – time is always the biggest judge of that, however.

But I more like to read the voice and body language of a coach after the marathon process that is bringing in a signing class. Derek Dooley was defensive in 2012. Butch Jones was exhausted and a bit frustrated in 2013.

Jones was a showman in 2014 – parading his 14 early enrollees up on stage, telling stories from the recruiting trail and showing off a class that was teaching Tennessee fans and the nation that he was going to be a force on the recruiting trail going forward.

The word that comes to mind this year for Jones is relaxed.

I have some theories for why he came off that way. Perhaps it’s the raise and extension that came his way before the TaxSlayer Bowl. Maybe it’s confidence that’s brimming from the way the Vols ended the season and their outlook going forward – the fact that the hardest work, in a sense, is over in this rebuilding job at Tennessee. Or maybe there had been so much stress in trying to land Drew Richmond and hang onto a few other commitments that nothing else seemed to matter to him.

All of that could’ve played into it. But I think more than anything we saw a relaxed Jones because he knows he’s proven to everybody – and himself – that he can recruit in the SEC at an elite level, which, if you remember, was perhaps the biggest question he faced when he took the Tennessee job after his stints as a head coach at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

It’s old hat for Jones now after landing a top-5 class twice in a row, and now sitting with a current top-10 class for the 2016 cycle. And, ironically, hats seemed to play a huge role in this particular cycle. There was the bucket hat connection with five-star defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie that led to Jones donning one when McKenzie officially signed.

And then, as the Vols hope he does in Knoxville, five-star receiver Preston Williams stole the show with his helmet/hat that he put on after signing with the Vols, ending a 502-day commitment to Tennessee with a fax to the Vols.

But away from fashion and back to Jones – the Vols’ third-year head coach who just landed the back-to-back top-5 classes. That may be old hat for him now, but it’s not for Tennessee. Consider that since recruiting websites became relatively common (around 2002), Tennessee has never signed consecutive top-5 classes. That spans the tenures of Phillip Fulmer, Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley.

All certainly had their recruiting triumphs, and Fulmer really had it going in the late 90s, before it was so exhaustively quantified, but it’s fair to say that Jones now has recruiting rolling at Tennessee at a level that hasn’t been seen in over a decade.

So it makes sense that Jones would be relaxed, calm and pleasant on late Wednesday afternoon. He fielded questions about his recruits, but also things that could be taken as more negative in nature, such as his offensive coordinator search, injuries, potential transfers and more.

He smiled, he joked and looked like a man in control of the program – not somebody trying to prove that he is. There were still the custom platitudes about the class from Jones.

“I don’t think it is any secret that we needed to address some program issues in our offensive and defensive line,” he said. “We were able to do that by signing five offensive linemen and six defensive linemen. That will add to the overall depth and competitive aspect at those positions. We secured home state. The top-three prospects are attending the University of Tennessee. That is where it starts. We secured home state and then were able to venture off into nine other states…

“With this class, we had to go coast-to-coast. I think we have proven that Tennessee is a national brand. I think we have proven that we have the respect around the country of what we’re building here at Tennessee. We still have a long ways to go, and we were in a lot of recruiting battles for these young men. I’m very proud of last year’s recruiting class, and I think this just adds a whole other element to our current team.”

His demeanor really said it all, though. No need to defend his plan, no reason to go over-the-top celebrating. The proof is there. Now he knows it’s time to take it to the field.

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