February 8, 2013
Jones & Co. do enough to believe '14 holds more
Taking the microphone four times in roughly 27 hours from signing day afternoon until the exhalation point Thursday evening at the sold-out recruiting celebrating in Knoxville, new Tennessee coach Butch Jones hammered home numerous talking points.
The Vols improved in areas. Jones loves him some Zach Azzanni and Mike Bajakian, and when talking with prospects or high school coaches, it's pretty easy to understand why.
And oh yes: Tennessee re-imaged this 2013 signing class under Jones in --- wait for it --- 31 days of "permissible recruiting," battling ice storms, the omnipresent negative recruiting that has for several years been a fixture around UT football and the built-in challenges with any transition.
Jones didn't say it, but I will: there should be optimism to see what might be done with a full 365.
"The big thing is having a plan and not deviating from it and being patient. A lot of times -- I don't want to use the word panic -- but you can't get so competitive that you can't step back. We've done that before," Jones said of assembling a class without watering down the roster. "(New linebackers coach) Tommy Thigpen went through it at Auburn when he first got there.
"There's a process with the first recruiting class. A lot of times, you're restricted by time, so it gets back to relationships. The hourglass had turned over on us and I thought we made up a lot of ground."
No, it wasn't a perfect class. Tennessee, as Jones had identified, needed more help at running back and defensive line, to name but a couple spots.
A program that has fallen off the cliff in the SEC mostly needed immediate help almost everywhere, save for an offensive line that potentially could resemble the old Tennessee Valley Authority days.
Still, as Jones noted, the Vols flipped eight players who signed in this class from other programs --- many of them with more immediate success than Tennessee.
"I think it goes back to relationships. I think it goes back to just spending time and selling your product," Jones said of turning those players. "I think that's the big thing is just taking advantage of maybe if you get one hour to spend with an individual, you make the most of that one hour. I say it again: we have a great staff. They're people oriented. They believe in developing the full individual. I think they saw that in our staff. That genuineness in our staff.
"The great thing for me is that on Sunday I have an exit interview with everyone who has official visit, and I have a kind of checklist and try to do quality control within the official visit and everyone talked about the genuineness of our staff. They could feel the energy and the passion, and then Tennessee sells itself. Like I said, it's the brand. When you walk into Neyland Stadium and think about all the great players who have played on that field, you become overwhelmed. I think there's a lot of components that really helped us."
Additionally, in the final Rivals.com rankings, of the 19 teams who finished ahead of Tennessee 15 of them have played for their conference championship or in a BCS game within the past five seasons.
Jones sold Tennessee for Tennessee, and the result was that his first UT signing class finished ranked immediately ahead of Oregon, Virginia Tech, Texas and West Virginia. Or, again, programs who all have competed in BCS games within the past five years.
"Probably more here, than ever," Jones said of the success he had in flipping committed players. "I think that is because of our brand and our product."
Martinez, who has been on the losing end of good Tennessee teams, knows that heritage now can be an advantage moving forward.
"The program sells itself. And just, they have to get to know us. And that's what I think that we were able to do for 31 days. We changed some lives. We changed peoples thinking," said secondary coach Willie Martinez, who's coached previously in the SEC at both Auburn and Georgia. "This is a great place, and everybody knows it. Across the nation, everybody knows the University of Tennessee is a great program. �
"Just the relationships that we built and maybe some of the kids that weren't giving a look at the University of Tennessee, they thought about it. They thought about it really long and hard. And the ones that we're so proud and able to coach now when they're here, it's exciting. And I'm talking about high school coaches and community leaders. � And our fan base is just amazing."
Next year, the staff can sell with more substance. It will have a collective season under its belt in the rugged Southeastern Conference. It will have myriad opportunities for statement games; the Vols play five games against teams that finished ranked in the top 15 and a total of seven against bowl teams from the 2012 season.
Certainly, it must win some of those games. But it's arguable that in some ways these coaches overachieved in landing a top-20 class for a 5-7 team in a program on its fourth full-time head coach since 2008.
Encouraged? Well, Martinez said the coaches are.
"Absolutely. Absolutely. It sells itself. It's an awesome thing," he said.
It's at least enough to believe the next 363 days hold the potential of considerable promise for this Tennessee program.
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