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February 5, 2014

Signing day analysis: The creation

HE ANATOMY OF THE CLASS

Christmas Day surprise - Vic Wharton the gift that kept giving
Jones had been on the job just 18 days when he landed his first commitment for the class of 2014. Vic Wharton had plenty of ties to Tennessee already. But he also had a tie to Jones after having camped at Cincinnati when Jones was coaching there. Little did anyone know at the time what Wharton would help the Vols accomplish over the next 13 months.

Paul on Vic Wharton - Christmas Day had never been a workday for me but that was about to change. Wharton had already started to fall in love with what Butch Jones was selling when he was at Cincinnati and once Wharton was offered by Jones and his staff at Tennessee it didn't take long at all for him to jump on board.

I was with my family in Chattanooga having Christmas dinner when I received a text telling me to call Vic. Wharton was also having his Christmas dinner so we weren't able to talk until later. I wrote the story on my iPhone (Not the first [Tino Thomas' commitment was the first on the iPhone for me] or the last) and tried to have it up and Wharton turned out to be the Christmas gift that kept on giving.

Wharton certainly deserves credit for helping create a buzz around Tennessee once again with the way he approached recruiting others in the class of 2014 as well as talking up the Vols. He was exactly what Tennessee needed to start off the class.

What a week ! March 9-15, 2013
Jones and his staff did a nice job finishing out the class of 2013, but it wasn't the type of finish where Vol fans declared that Jones didn't have a learning curve to recruiting in the SEC. During the early week in March, Jones, his staff and the Vols made a statement to their fans and the rest of the SEC that recruiting at a high level was well underway on Rocky Top. The week started with offensive lineman Coleman Thomas and finished with Treyvon Paulk. In between ? Todd Kelly, Neiko Creamer, and Jalen Hurd.

Austin on Todd Kelly - It was a Sunday afternoon in early March and the 2014 recruiting class was about to start something special. Knoxville native and Vol legacy Todd Kelly Jr. pulled the trigger that afternoon and things started to snowball from there.

"I knew it was the place to be and was going to be a special place and class," Kelly said. "We got so many commitments early once I jumped on board. Coach Jones and the staff is doing such a great job and the future is bright."

Kelly received his Tennessee offer during his sophomore season, but things didn't click for the son of former Vol Todd Kelly. Alabama, Ohio State and others were making a big time play for the Webb Spartan. Credit an early decision by Butch Jones for helping turn the tide back in the big orange direction.

"Coach Dooley didn't really recruit either Jalen or myself very much," Kelly said. "Coach Jones came in and they had just got the job and he sent someone to see both of us when he was still living out of a suitcase in hotels. That really stood out to me and let me know I was important to him."

Brent on Jalen Hurd - Tennessee was on the practice field for a morning workout during spring practice when word came out of Nashville that Hurd might be calling Jones. We were fortunate to catch a photo of Jones on the phone with Hurd as the five star running back told the head coach he was coming. Paul had headed out of practice to set up and write just in case the call happened. John managed delivering the news in social media and other mediums.

I alerted Paul to call Jalen who was gracious with this time. The most proud part of the story was Austin calling me after he heard the news while in Nashville to let me know he was going to Beech High School to do a video package on Hurd. There was very little talk of practice as Jones with new running backs coach Robert Gillespie just days on the job had landed Hurd who six months earlier barely had the Vols on his radar screen.

Tight ends come calling
The month of April saw Tennessee land three commitments with the highlights being two mid-term enrollees in Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm. Tight end was a huge priority for the Vols. Wolf was interested in Jones when he was at Cincinnati. Two unofficial visits in the spring landed him in orange and white. Helm saw early playing time as a real possibility and developed a quick relationship with Jones.

John on Helm - It was just a few days after the Orange & White Game, a Tuesday I believe, when I was grilling out and got word that we should call Helm as quickly as possible. The Vols had been his leaders, but still Helm's stock was beginning to soar. Paul and I both had found him undervalued, but of course that changed as Helm just continued to turn heads everywhere he went. I still remember talking to Helm as we broke his commitment that evening and hearing the excitement and enthusiasm he already had for Tennessee's program and his plans to further help the Vols' peer recruiting efforts. That stands out more than the food I burned on the grill.

A defensive summer
Jones and his staff continued their recruiting assault throughout the summer heat finding themselves heading into the season as the top ranked class in the country. The Vols landed 6 recruits from May 30th - July 20 when they scored mid-state talent and teammate of Vic Wharton in Rashaun Gaulden. The summer commitment list included Joe Henderson, Chris Weatherd (back to back days), Cortez McDowell, Dillon Bates and Gaulden.

Paul on Dillon Bates - Bates was someone Volnation wanted since they heard about him and saw his sophomore film and once Bates visited campus with his uncle last January I knew he was going to be a Vol. He still had close family in Knoxville and you could tell from talking to him that while he wanted to see other options Tennessee was thought of as home as he grew up loving the program.

But, the Tennessee he grew up loving wasn't the Tennessee he knew before Butch Jones arrived and after that January visit the tides turned quickly in the Vols' favor.

"It's a whole different kind of mentality. I feel like there's a different kind of mentality," Bates said comparing the program before and after Jones took over. "I feel like there's a lot more energy and a lot more excitement coming in with the new coaches. A whole new program, almost. It was really good to see."

To their credit, Bates and his family did their due diligence and saw numerous schools including Florida, Alabama and others but Tennessee was the place for him. He called the Vols his leaders in April and he never looked back before making everything official on July 4th at The Opening in Oregon. It was the start to a month that would see the Vols get even better in the back seven.

Paul on Rashaun Gaulden - Gaulden and Bates stories differ as much as the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans but their destinations are the same. Although Tennessee was one of the first schools to offer Gaulden after his sophomore season, Gaulden and Tennessee never seemed to quite mesh until Tommy Thigpen entered the frame for the Vols.

Even though Vanderbilt led at times for Gaulden, the Vols made up a ton of ground last spring leading into the summer and finished it off in July when he committed.

We planned to actually meet with Rashaan the day before his announcement to film his commitment video but he told us, 'I don't have enough orange.' So, the next day we returned to film his announcement and there he was in a new Tennessee shirt and hat.

The pickup of Gaulden was another key factor in Jones and Thigpen owning the Midstate this year.

The JUCO scene
The need junior college help was a major priority for the Vol coaching staff particularly on the offensive line. It's why Dontavius Blair had long been atop the Vols recruiting board. With the departure of all five starters on the offensive line and a huge lack of numbers at the tackle position, Blair was a must get for the Jones and the offense. It was also known at that point in the season that the Vols needed as much help as possible in making plays on offense and that's when the Vols targeted a little known speedster in Lavon Pearson

Paul on Lavon Pearson - I still remember when I was told about Pearson and someone using the word 'freak' and thinking, 'C'mon, man.' The last time someone in the football ranks had used the word freak was with Cordarrelle Patterson and we know how that turned out.

Then, I watched his film and came away thinking the same thing. I even had someone compare him to the way Patterson moves and cuts and I didn't object. Heading into Pearson's visit he basically let me know if everything was fine with his family he was going to be a Vol coming out on the other end of the visit and that's how it happened.

Pearson added a dimension that at that time, the Vols didn't have with a playmaker on the outside. We had seen just how hard it was for Marquez North to find more balls because defenses focused on him in the passing game. With Pearson (and Malone), teams shouldn't be able to do that next year.

The day after
Jones is a master marketer and is very gifted at creating momentum. And that was never more evident than the Vols three week run following a string of losses in late October and early November. In those three weeks, Jones landed a commitment on the Sunday or Monday following the loss. It started with 4-star Dewayne Hendrix and finished with Elliot and Evan Berry after the Vols loss to Missouri

Brent on Dewayne Hendrix - It was the Sunday following Tennessee's loss to Alabama when Hendrix did what many thought he would do when he was in Knoxville back in April for the orange and white game. It was back in April when Hendrix and his family arrived on Rocky Top decked out in Vol gear. Many of us thought Hendrix would fall to the Vols quickly but he never did anything in the spring. He's announcement on Sunday afternoon certainly took some of the sting out of a loss to Alabama where the Vols weren't competitive and lost their starting quarterback.

Malone changes the game
Five-star Josh Malone became the center of attention after he signed his grant-in-aid papers allowing schools to recruit him with no contact restrictions. Malone used the loophole in the rule to his benefit to make a more informed decision. That decision was to be a Vol and gave Jones basically a clean sweep in the state of Tennessee with the prospects the he wanted. Jones made Malone a personal priority and with the help of ace recruitier Tommy Thigpen, Tennessee landed their most sought after playmaker in the top-100 prospects as he announced live on national television through Rivals.com and NBC Sports.

John on Malone - Though he was a five-star with offers literally from coast to coast, Josh Malone never embraced the limelight of his recruitment. But he did embrace a chance to make a thorough, deliberate decision by becoming the first player to sign multiple grant-in-aid papers. And Malone narrowed it down to Clemson and Tennessee, with the Tigers sending a couple of coaches to the Tennessee Mr. Football Awards banquet while the Vols rolled out en masse with five coaches there as guests of dignitaries for the invitation-only event. Some unprompted phone calls from a certain VFL legend in the NFL down the stretch didn't hurt, but Malone became a Vol because Jones' dogged personal approach, Thigpen's relationship-building and then Malone's ability to see the Vols' quarterbacks work on the practice field in film study. Now Malone already is continuing to be a student of the game, hanging with the QBs just last week in some film study.

Great Scott that's a wrap
With the knee injury to long time commitment Treyvon Paulk, Tennessee sought another running back in the class of 2014. North Carolina native Derrell Scott visited the Vols back in October and few gave Tennessee much of a chance. The low-key Scott offered little throughout the process and didn't talk about his visit to Knoxville for several weeks.

Brent on Scott -In talking those close to Scott, the Vols found themselves third behind South Carolina and N.C. State. Then Florida made a late run at the all-purpose back who helped guide his team to two straight state titles. Scott communicated with Tennessee the entire weekend he was in Gainesville, but many wondered if the Vols could overcome South Carolina who was closer to home and appeared to be the choice of some close to Scott. Give running backs coach Robert Gillespie alot of credit. He continued to grind ultimately landing the 4-star talent to cap off the offensive work in the 2014 class.

Finishing in the trenches
It's no secret that Tennessee couldn't sign enough defensive linemen in the class, but they certainly when deep on the defensive line with four-star prospects Dewayne Hendrix and Derek Barnett. Today, Jones and his defensive staff landed some more help with four-star Nashville product Michael Sawyers as he chose the Vols over Ole Miss and Georgia Tech in a recruitment that started after James Franklin left for Penn State.

Brent on Sawyers - Would he visit? Was he interested? Was Tennessee interested? It was the most batted around questions surrounding Sawyers. The answer ended up being yes in a recruitment that had some unusual twists and really only heated up between Sawyers and the Vols in the last week before signing day. Sawyers surprised many when he tweeted that he would visit the Vols. He saw a different side of Tennessee when he visited last weekend thanks to the candid talks with several mid-term enrollees including Josh Malone. He and his mother also saw the academic side for the first time and the Vols scored big with the business school as Jones and company had clearly done their homework. The lasting memory of Sawyers, a middle of the night signing day eve email from John Brice with not only confirmation but quotes from Sawyers on his decision to be a Vol.

Winning in the mid-state
There's no doubt that one of biggest keys to the creation of the class of 2014 has been the Vols' reemergence in the Midstate. Nashville and the surrounding counties is the fastest growing area in the state of Tennessee. It's also producing really good football talent as evident with two five-stars in Hurd and Malone just a handful of miles a part. But it was certainly more than just those two high profile prospects. The depth of talent in and around Nashville is unlike anything we have seen in the state of Tennessee with two four-star defensive linemen in Derek Barnett and Michael Sawyers as well as a four-star safety in Gaulden. The fact is the Midstate is better than it's ever been and Tennessee has never recruited Nashville better in landing every prospect they pursued with the exception of one. Jones along with his most experience recruiting assistant in Tommy Thigpen made Nashville a priority over a year ago and their hard work and willingness to be in Nashville for any event or at any time the NCAA calendar allows has paid huge dividends for the Vols.

Jones on Nashville -"You win with players. Let me make no mistake that we are going to win first and foremost with the great state of Tennessee. We have tremendous high school coaches in this state. We are the state institution and we will own our state. We are going to be at every high in the state and our players are going to understand what is to wear the power ''T, they're going to understand what it is to represent their home institution. I take great pride in that."

Setting a tone for the future
Jones and his entire staff from coaches to his recruiting office to senior director of compliance Matt Hibbs have gotten the attention of not only recruits but from other competitors as well with their creativity in recruiting. Schools around the country have been trying to figure out for months how Tennessee has been able to sign a class so big. The Vols were the first to figure out a way to use a mid-term prospect signing a grand-in-aid to their advantage. It was so effective the NCAA has already tweaked things in what can called the Josh Malone rule. Jones and his staff created events for unofficial visits such as Foundation Day. The had the Tennessee river declared part of campus in order to use a boat ride as a key element to their official visit presentation. It seems everywhere you turned the Vols were setting the pace with creativity. Something that didn't surprise athletics director Dave Hart.

Hart on Butch Jones -"Butch from day one, and it was obvious that night talking to him in Lexington; Butch is very much in tuned to what the 17-year-old, 18-year-old, 19-year-old young people are into," Hart said. "From a technology standpoint. From a 'Hey each time I come coach show me something different'. He's done a great job of that. Our staff has done a great job of that. So when you visit for that fourth time, you are as excited as you were that first time because you're seeing something different each time you come. It's not just the same template. 'Well I've already seen that, or done that, or I've already been there.'"



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