Butch Jones did it again on Tuesday.
He’s part salesman, part magician on the recruiting trail. And while the 2017 class hasn’t yet quite lived up to the lofty standards that Jones set the past few years, he pulled a massive rabbit out of his hat when offensive tackle Trey Smith, the No. 1 overall player in the nation according to ESPN, chose the Vols over a star-studded list of college offers. Smith gives the Vols a class back in the top 10 at the moment and some momentum heading down the stretch.
It really came down to Tennessee, Ohio State and Alabama at the end. One of those three is not like the others this season. It didn’t matter. Jones pulled off the trick anyhow.
And that’s what Jones has done since arriving at Tennessee in late 2012. He did what he could in a short period of time with that initial class, but then really took off in 2014 and 2015 on the trail. Five-star talent such as Jalen Hurd, Kahlil McKenzie, Preston Williams and Drew Richmond chose the Vols over programs who were winning more on the field.
When it looked like Jones was losing the touch just a bit in the last recruiting class, he landed Nigel Warrior and, against the odds, Jonathan Kongbo on signing day to give the Vols a nice boost.
So if you’ve been paying attention, it shouldn’t be shocking that Jones is pulling it off again this year, even after a disappointing year on the field. There are probably more surprises to come. Jones said the Vols were on the verge of a “top-notch” class on Monday. Based on his track record, you should believe him.
Getting that type of talent to campus is about half the battle in college football. Now it’s time for Jones to do the rest.
And therein lies the problem for this program in the past couple years. Jones must keep them and develop them. There’s no question that he’ll look into that as he does his offseason evaluation in the coming weeks and months.
Here’s a look at the top five recruits (using the 247Sports Composite ranking) from every year under Jones in Knoxville:
Todd Kelly Jr.
I don’t think it’s fair to fully evaluate the 2016 class yet after just one year.
But out of the rest of the 15, six didn’t stick around (I’m including North because his decision to go to the draft seemingly wasn’t a good one), one (Bates) hasn’t contributed much at all, one (Todd Kelly Jr.) is a solid starter, three (Richmond, Phillips, McKenzie) are fringe starters who have seen some significant action, but have been up-and-down, and four (Dobbs, Kamara, Reeves-Maybin and Malone) have developed into major pieces who should get NFL opportunities.
Based on that, Jones really is only getting close to 25% of his top players to stick around and develop close to the level they were ranked coming in. Even if some of the fringe guys I mentioned step up in the next few years, about 40-45% is where he’ll top out. 247Sports ran a study a few weeks back looking at bust rate among top-100 players on their site, and, while the methodology was different, the results were similar. That study pointed out that a place like Alabama has more like a 60% success rate. The Vols simply can’t compete at this rate.
Now, there are certainly plenty of variables to throw around. For example, Hurd gave the Vols plenty of production before bolting. And recruiting classes are made up of much more than just the top five players. You could counter the bust factor of somebody like Williams with the success of somebody like Cam Sutton or Derek Barnett – players who weren’t at the top of their class in the rankings. And recruiting rankings are far from infallible, though there are plenty of established links between top classes and championships won.
But one of Jones’ best attributes – his ability to land highly-ranked players and bring star power into the program – has, in some regards, turned into a downfall for him when so many haven’t stayed and/or developed.
With Smith on board and the Vols potentially headed towards another top-10 class, Jones must find a way to capitalize on his ability to land studs. All five of the players mentioned in 2016 have shown some level of promise in practices or games. It’ll be a big year of development for all of them. Now, add the likes of Smith, running back Ty Chandler, safety Maleik Gray and others into the mix for 2017 and beyond.
Jones has consistently found ways to get top recruits to campus. It’ll be up to him to show improvements in other areas if he wants to avoid disappearing from the UT job.