Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE
Butch Jones' first major chance to impress us has passed. How did he do?
After Tennessee hired Butch Jones, I wrote about how I didn't believe in him but implored him to make me. After his first Signing Day, it's time to take stock of the progress Jones has made in convincing the Tennessee faithful* that he will bring the Vols back to their rightful place competing for championships.
One of the first questions I posed was about recruiting:
I have no idea whether you can recruit. You haven't coached in the SEC before, I'm not aware of any connections you have in the Southeast, and you don't have a track record of pulling top 25 classes. Well at Tennessee, recruiting is a big deal. If you're not pulling top ten classes year in and year out, you're falling behind the rest of the conference. If you can recruit, show me. It'll be one of the first things you can do to make me believe in you. Because if you can get talent here, that's the first step to winning here.
When the NSD smoke cleared, Butch Jones had not pulled in a top ten class. With one attempt at a post-NSD steal still on the board, the Vols have barely hung onto a top 25 spot and are just 11th in the SEC (although 9th in average rating). That's falling further behind your peers.
But, despite a poor showing on the 2013 recruiting class, at least relative to Tennessee's standard expectations, it's hard to say whether that should negatively impact anyone's belief in Butch Jones. I've said several times that there's very little Jones can do in the 2013 signing class to negatively affect my opinion of him, but there was plenty he could do to give me hope. Well, he didn't give much reason for hope, but I'm not sure he did much to be negative about either. He didn't fill needs at defensive or offensive tackle, but there were precious few SEC-caliber players at either position that were giving Tennessee a second look no matter who was coaching. He did sign three defensive ends, holding off Alabama to keep the highest-rated commit on the defensive side of the ball, while adding a pair of three-stars to fill holes.
He also did good work in the passing game, flipping four-star QB Joshua Dobbs from Arizona State, holding onto Paul Harris, securing the services of MarQuez North, and flipping legacy Ryan Jenkins from Clemson. All three receivers are rated four-stars by at least one service, and North is a consensus four-star. But what Tennessee coach hasn't been able to recruit WRs? Among Kiffin's four big splashes in 2009 were WRs Nu'Keese Richardson and Marsalis Teague, and Dooley's biggest gets in 2010 were Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. Even last year, when recruiting momentum had slowed to a crawl, Dooley was able to secure Cordarrelle Patterson, Drae Bowles, Jason Croom, and Pig Howard. So doing good work on receivers isn't enough for a coach to prove himself. We're still WR U.
The most obvious cause for concern was losing two players that a year ago were looking for reasons to sign with Tennessee, one of whom grew up a Vol fan, as E.J. Levenberry went to Florida State and Vonn Bell to Ohio State. It doesn't look good for the recruiting ability of a coach when he can't secure top players who have wanted to come to Tennessee. But, while this may look like a strike against Jones on the surface, it's hard to tell just how big of a hole Derek Dooley dug for Jones. Bell's father was quoted saying that Jones had no chance in just two months to repair all the damage done by Dooley. It seems like every time Tennessee fans turn around, they discover something else Dooley did to set the program back, and in light of quotes like these, it's hard to see the losses of Bell and Levenberry as signs that Jones just can't cut it. While they might be bad signs, they might just mean that Dooley had dug the hole that deep.
But while I'm not prepared to lessen belief in Coach Jones because of missing on Bell and Levenberry (and Lawson, and Ford, etc.), they were all opportunities for him to inspire hope, and the opportunities were missed. Those missed opportunities will have to be made up on the field this fall or in the 2014 recruiting class, which is chock full of in-state talent and UT legacies that could close the gap between Tennessee and the top of the SEC. The opportunity is there, and blaming Dooley will be off the table, so the question will be whether Jones has the chops to hold off the recruiting powers on kids who should be predisposed towards wearing the orange. While he missed a chance to answer that question in a positive manner today, he hasn't proven incompetence either, and he'll have the chance for a home run again next year.
Although recruiting has been the major focus of the past two months, Jones has done one other thing that should encourage Vols fans: he won over the former players. The disdain of the former players for Dooley bubbled over early and often, but the early returns seem to say that Jones has done everything in his power to convince them he is the man to take Tennessee back to the top, and that Tennessee will always be their program. Admittedly, these are people looking for reasons to believe in Tennessee. But by the same token, they're people who have been around major college football before and know what it takes to succeed. If they believe, I count that as a mark in the positive column.
The former players alone is enough to make me more positive than I was when he was hired, when my feeling was roughly "please let this not be real." And a recruiting class well below Tennessee standards can be excused easily enough when you realize what kind of hole he had to climb out of. But, on the other side of the coin, Jones hasn't done anything to prove that he can win over elite high school talent. He wasn't in a position to do it at Cincinnati, and he was unable to do it while playing from behind this year at Tennessee. Winning over former elite talent is good, but if he can't convince today's high-schoolers he's going to win, he won't win.
For the last several years, Tennessee has been in a constant cycle of brief hopes and crushing disappointments. Even in the darkest hours, there was room for hope, albeit not room for well-founded confidence. In his second recruiting class, Dooley had Lamar Dawson and Gabe Wright lined up to come to Knoxville. And then signing day came, and one went to Auburn and the other to Southern California. In 2012, even those who had written Dooley off as a head coach saw enough talent in Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, and Cordarrelle Patterson to win eight games in spite of the coaching. And the season came, and we saw the defense, and we saw 5-7. This weekend, it looked like Butch Jones had done the work to flip Carl Lawson and Vonn Bell to Tennessee and had a legitimate chance at Levenberry. When the smoke cleared, Lawson was at Auburn, Bell at Ohio State, and Levenberry at Florida State.
Again, there is enough hope that Tennessee fans shouldn't write off Jones' tenure as a failure before it starts. He won over the former players. This year's mediocre recruiting class falls mostly in Dooley. Jones is making the legacies a recruiting focus--he already has a commitment from Vic Wharton and he spent the evening of the 2013 Signing Day on the phone with 2014 prospect Todd Kelly Jr.--and as he's so fond of reminding us, recruiting is about relationships, and he has a full year to build them. Not to mention that Tennessee still, to a large degree, recruits itself. Even Dooley started his tenure with a pair of top 15 classes. And Jones has won championships, albeit at much lower levels. But is there reason for confidence that we won't, yet again, have the ball pulled away at the last second? Not yet. He hasn't shown he can recruit at an SEC level, and he hasn't shown he can beat superior teams with lesser players. Tennessee fans are in for yet another spring of being able to hope for the positives but not having any reason to count on them. But starting today, the Dooley excuse is over** and Jones stands or falls on his own. May he take those hopes and turn them into certainties. May he stand.
*I don't speak for all of the Tennessee faithful, but I speak for one of them. Which is me.
**At least it's over for recruiting. I will continue bemoaning the state of the roster Dooley left behind, but on the field, whether Jones stands or falls will be about whether he makes the best of what he has, not whether he wins an SEC championship in year one.