Nobody in his right mind would have believed back on the morning of December 6, 2012, that the Tennessee Volunteers would already have 15 commitments in the nation's second-ranked class, five pledges verbally committed for 2015 and even one on deck for the 2016 class that won't sign on the dotted line for 28 more months.
The day that Butch Jones was named UT's next head football coach was was met with a near-universal "Meh."
Yet here Jones is, amazing folks at every turn, convincing national analysts that he's the right man for the job, patching up a fractured fanbase and trying to change the loser mentality that has permeated Knoxville over much of the past decade.
We can't be sure that the Vols are on their way back from their recent slumber in irrelevance, but the seeds are surely being sown. Difficult times almost assuredly await Jones in his first season on Rocky Top, but there is no doubt that the rise back to respectability begins on the recruiting trail. That is where the Vols have thrived -- the only place they can when it's not football season -- since Jones has been at the helm.
The rise back to the top may have started the day Jones was hired, but it received a big jolt back on Christmas Day with a pledge from Independence High School athlete Vic Wharton, who chose the Vols over several mid-range offers, including the SEC trio of Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. Though Wharton won't wind up the highest-rated pledge in this class, he may just be the most valuable. The barrage of Twitter messages, good vibes and positive energy directed by Wharton toward the UT program helped other in-state kids stand up and take notice.
High four-star safety Todd Kelly Jr. and five-star running back Jalen Hurd followed suit with commitments that sent shockwaves not only through the state but also the nation. National recruits who have blown up the camp circuit such as D'Andre Payne [Washington D.C.] , Daniel Helm [Illinois] and Joe Henderson [Ohio] have followed. Offensive lineman Orlando Brown Jr. -- he of the huge offer sheet -- also has pledged to the Vols.
Other notable names in-state who hold the Vols in high regards include RaShaan Gaulden, Petera Wilson, Derek Barnett, Charles Mosley and others. National recruits like Dillon Bates, D.J. Smith, Wesley Green, Adoree Jackson and more are listening and trying to get down [or back] to Knoxville to see what the buzz is about.
That recruiting "buzz" you hear about often. There is all of a sudden an "It" school and kids want to see what it's about. They talk with each other in person, via the phone or on social media and develop relationships. Before Jones came along, we mostly heard about it but didn't experience it except on those magical few seasons when Phillip Fulmer developed his reputation as a closer, getting some of the nation's elite players to commit and sign with Tennessee in January and December.
But this is June. And yet here the Vols are, battling the nation's best teams for the nation's best players and going toe-to-toe with guys everybody wants. Just Friday, an elite linebacker with offers from everybody in the nation -- Frostproof, Fla.'s Cecil Cherry -- decided to effectively end his recruitment before it hardly got off the ground. This coaching staff is working its tail off on the recruiting trail, and it's paying dividends for the Vols in the form of the nation's second-ranked class.
This weekend, the vast majority of UT's pledges for the 2014 class are on campus, spending face time with one another, bonding, helping recruit some of the other top players in the country to Tennessee as the Vols hold one of their big camps of the summer. This was orchestrated by Jones, who wanted to make sure that everybody came in unofficially on the same weekend so they could have time to spend and it also gives UT several more recruiters on hand. It's a brilliant idea, really.
If [or when] the Vols fall on hard times this year, it wouldn't be out of the ordinary to see a mass exodus of prospects. But with these guys, they mostly have ties to the program -- whether it be in-state or through legacies. Having a get-together of this caliber and giving all these guys face time with one another raises the accountability level with a player who may start wavering once a potentially rocky season begins on Rocky Top. If they bolt then, they bail out not only on the name of the program but on the coaches and teammates with which they've already bonded.
These are the little things that were foreign to Derek Dooley. But that's not hard to believe. After he was fired, we learned about plenty of shortcomings Dooley had in establishing relationships with prospects and their prep coaches. Not having bonding sessions was the least of his failures.
But it's one of the reasons why so many Tennessee fans believe now. It's the reason so many UT players and former players believe. We can see the other side of the tunnel. Take this quote that Eric Berry told the Chattanooga Times Free Press's Stephen Hargis in today's paper for instance ... they all believe:
"That's a place I care a lot about and want to see them back on top," Berry said. "Those type struggles go in cycles for every college team, and I have a lot of faith that Butch is the man who is going to get us back where we want to be. Butch is a great coach. He knows the game, has a solid plan that will work and he understands he needs to show the players and fans he cares about them and the program. The fans have stuck with the program through a tough time and they just keep finding reason to hope. I think we all have a good reason for hope now with Butch in charge, and it's really exciting to know that things are already turning around.
"Butch knows how I feel about him. I love the guy and what he stands for. He's not fake about his enthusiasm for being the head coach at Tennessee. He really does appreciate where he is, and that means a lot to us former players. We don't even have to check in with him if we want to stop by to visit or watch a practice. But a lot of us do call him just so we can talk or check on things, and he's made us feel welcome and like he genuinely cares about us as well as the current players. He just gets it, man.
"We've got a lot to be proud of at Tennessee, and having Butch Jones as our coach now is a big part of that."
Maybe -- just maybe -- Neyland Stadium isn't going to be a mausoleum on the river much longer. Maybe we can fill the stands, make some noise nationally and begin to get back in the picture for championships. It begins with infusing talent into a dormant program. It begins on the recruiting trail. That's where it has begun for Jones and the Vols.
Rise to the top. Return to glory. Hopefully, it's right around the corner.