On the afternoon of Christmas 2012, Vic Wharton’s gift to an entire football program was a reason to hope.
That was the day the Independence High School product gave new Tennessee coach Butch Jones his first commitment of the 2014 recruiting class. Though Wharton wasn’t the highest-rated recruit in the country, he had faith in Jones’ vision to turn around a near-decade of demoralization for the Tennessee football program – and he was just the type of spark to help Jones’ message spread like wildfire.
“I believed in Coach Jones,” Wharton told Rocky Top Talk recently. “I was completely convinced we would land the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.”
Though it’s only August, the Vols have unbelievably lived up to Wharton’s lofty expectations. Tennessee is currently at the top of the recruiting rankings on at least one major service. In the other three, the Vols are firmly entrenched in the top six.
While it remains unlikely that UT will finish at the top of those unscientific standings, a top-five class is not out of the question with roughly seven spots remaining to fill in a large class of 30 players. The recruiting class is laced with legacies, immersed with immediate-impact players, and topped with a few Tennesseans.
Tennessee’s surging start has exceeded everybody’s expectations from when Jones was hired back in early December. At the time, Vols fans had set their sights on pie-in-the-sky candidates like Jon Gruden. When courtships with Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher faltered and an almost sure deal with Louisville coach Charlie Strong crumbled at the 11th hour, the announcement of Jones was anticlimactic, to put it mildly.
Verbal carnage from Clarksville to Cleveland and Kingsport to Collierville was strewn across message boards. Many underwhelmed fans all but proclaimed the death of the program. It was unfairness at its finest, yet a predictable reaction from a once-proud fan base starving for quality football. Jones was simply unproven, at least when it came to coaching and recruiting in the nation’s toughest conference.
Despite having a solid track record at previous head coaching stints at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, there were the lingering concerns about whether Jones would be able to walk in a prospect’s living room where Nick Saban or Les Miles had sat and be able to convince the player that Tennessee was the place for him. Jones, after all, had never recruited at a high level. But when he took the podium and noted that Saban and Miles once entered the league without an SEC pedigree, and they turned out fine on the sideline and recruiting trail, the past eight months have proven he wasn’t just whistling Rocky Top past the graveyard.
It’s obvious the man can recruit. Now, it’s just a matter of being able to coach in the rugged SEC – where coaching staffs go to die. Ten new coaches have been hired within the conference in the past four seasons alone. Whether or not he can win quickly will go a long way in determining whether he’ll be able to keep all these players in the fold.
And, unlike the past few years of Tennessee fans having to talk themselves into Derek Dooley’s diamonds in the rough, other teams will actually come fighting for the Vols’ current commitments this season. That’s what happens when you’ve got a top-ranked class full of highly coveted players.
Regardless of rankings, however, UT stands to inject a huge class of talented players into a roster in dire need of them. Currently, out of Jones’ 24 commitments, 12 are rated as four-star prospects by Rivals, and 247Sports rates 11 of UT’s commitments as four-star prospects. The Vols also have a pledge from five-star running back Jalen Hurd of Beech High School. Solidifying a class of highly coveted players is big news for a program that has lagged behind in recent history when it comes to keeping up with the SEC’s top programs in recruiting.
Several high-profile defensive line commitments UT is targeting would round out what would qualify as being a best-case scenario in Jones’ first full recruiting class, and the Vols are high on several highly ranked targets. For anybody who believes this surge is a one-year flash in the pan, UT already has secured five commitments in the 2015 class and another one for 2016.
But how did this perfect recruiting storm all come together for Jones?
It all started with Wharton, the nephew of former Tennessee basketball standout Brandon Wharton. He used to live in Knoxville and developed a strong relationship with several prospects in that area, including highly-coveted, four-star safety Todd Kelly Jr. of The Webb School. Then, when Wharton moved to the midstate, he became friends with prospects such as Hurd and four-star defensive back RaShaan Gaulden.
After Wharton committed, he took to social media – chiefly Twitter – to recruit his buddies. All of a sudden, the UT coaching staff had another recruiter, this one without the chains of NCAA restrictions. Jones and his staff were already on Twitter, tweeting about the changing culture of the program, but Wharton’s presence lent a younger voice to Jones’ message. The connections the staff were making with former Vols and current in-state coaches were getting broadcast to the masses for all with a Twitter account to see.
Suddenly, prospects began to see firsthand the accessibility of the new staff. More than that, Wharton kept his fingers busy, telling all his Twitter followers in 140 characters or less just how great UT’s new staff was. Peer-to-peer recruiting would prove to be one of the biggest catapults to the class.
National Signing Day 2013 came and went without some of the big fish Jones had been courting down the stretch. While Jones was able to convince four-star wide receiver MarQuez North to sign with UT and flipped guys like four-star receiver Ryan Jenkins from Clemson and three-star cornerback Malik Foreman from Vanderbilt, other major targets went elsewhere.
Lifelong UT fan Vonn Bell signed with Ohio State when Jones’ frantic recruitment of the five-star safety fell just short. Bell spoke of UT being too far behind and of his nonexistent relationship with Dooley. Five-star defensive end Carl Lawson showed legitimate interest in UT once Jones got there, but he stuck with his original pledge to Auburn.
Those were tough early gut-punches for the Vols, but, behind the scenes, Tennessee’s staff (and Wharton) kept recruiting for the future.
All that early work culminated the second weekend of March when Jones opened the team’s first spring practice to alumni and hosted a horde of top recruiting targets.
By doing that, guys like Hurd could hear the coaches’ talk about Tennessee preparing players for the NFL while standing alongside Jamal Lewis, an All-Pro millionaire who personified the pitch. An elite prospect like Kelly could stand on the sideline seeing how practice was conducted and watch his beaming father beside him, reliving his glory days in orange.
It was a perfect recruiting scenario. Under Dooley’s watch, it was difficult for any former Tennessee player to show up in Knoxville and watch practices. Alumni felt cut off from the program. Prospects lost that starry-eyed feeling of seeing pro players while on official visits. Bad publicity and a growing disapproval followed. When Dooley couldn’t win, the distrust and anger turned ugly, not only among the fans but among those who had played for the Vols. A school that had been split apart by the Phillip Fulmer-Johnny Majors rift decades before fractured further.
The culture at Tennessee simply hadn’t felt like a family atmosphere since Fulmer’s glory days of the 1990s.
That sunny Saturday at the beginning of March signified an end to that era. Jones was going to embrace the history – and the future – of Tennessee football with open arms. In doing so, he has done what Lane Kiffin nor Dooley could do: unite the fan base.
The goodwill spread by Jones and all the hard work put in the early stages of building his recruiting machine in Knoxville paid immediate dividends following that magical March weekend.
On that first day of spring practice March 9, Virginia offensive lineman Coleman Thomas became Jones’ second commitment for the 2014 class, choosing UT over Virginia Tech, West Virginia and others. With the lines of scrimmage being major needs in this year’s class, Thomas was a big early coup.
But Thomas’s pledge was just the start of a torrid week that would have national recruiting analysts everywhere taking notice.
The next day, Tennessee got another standard bearer for the ’14 class with its biggest commit so far in Kelly – a four-star safety with offers from 35 of the nation’s top programs. Like Wharton, Kelly is a UT legacy, but he is also one of the state’s top three prospects and a player wanted by elite teams like Southern Cal, Alabama and Florida.
Jumbo athlete Neiko Creamer – a Delaware native who can play wide receiver, tight end, defensive end or linebacker on the next level – followed Kelly by committing on Monday, also following in his father, Andre’s footsteps in becoming a Tennessee Vol.
The class’s centerpiece stunned the recruiting world the following Thursday when five-star Hurd of Beech High School outside of Nashville chose Tennessee over offers from Ohio State, Florida, Alabama and basically everybody else. Tennessee’s unprecedented recruiting week wrapped up with the pledge of four-star running back Treyvon Paulk on Friday.
“That week kind of set the foundation for everything else that has happened with the Tennessee recruiting class,” said GoVols247 recruiting analyst Ryan Callahan. “Getting players like Todd Kelly Jr. and Jalen Hurd to commit that early wasn’t just big because of how good they were but it turned out to be even bigger because of just how good they were at recruiting others.
“They helped coaches go out and attract the players they needed to have a highly ranked class.”
While Hurd spoke of how his relatives are Tennessee fans upon his commitment to UT, he also noted that he wouldn’t have considered the Vols had Dooley still been the coach. It’s a sentiment echoed by several other commitments in this class. Hurd also agreed that the peer recruiting – notably the constant communication via Twitter that he had with Wharton and staying with the Kelly family and bonding with TKJr. during that March visit – played a major role in securing his commitment.
“I’m very glad I’ve got Vic and Todd for teammates,” said Hurd, who set numerous state rushing records last season as a junior at state champion Beech. “As soon as I committed, Todd called and was hyped. We set up a Twitter account and hashtags to show what we’re doing and to help recruit.
“Coach Jones is staying up with the times. He’s not going to have a little flip-phone. He’s using Instagram, Twitter and other social media. Not a lot of coaches are doing that, and that’s what kids are loving right now.”
Hurd spoke these words during a recent interview with RTT, and the steady stream of Volunteers commitments has kept flowing through news cycles ever since.
The big week in March was huge for Tennessee, even if most of the players who committed were either in-state prospects or legacies (meaning the prospect had someone else within his family who’d played for the Vols.) But the first 10 days of April proved Jones’ message was being heard nationally, too.
Four-star cornerback D’Andre Payne of Washington D.C. picked Tennessee on April 3, choosing the Vols over more than 25 offers from teams such as Florida State and Ohio State. A week later, Ohio tight end Ethan Wolf – who would earn an offer from Alabama and other top programs later on – picked the Vols.
With those commits, it was proof that Jones’ pitch and his #BrickByBrick slogan had gone national. Four-star tight end Daniel Helm of Illinois and junior college receiver and Texas native Kameel Jackson (a former freshman starter at Oklahoma) followed with UT commitments by the end of April.
May brought news of hulking offensive line commitment Orlando Brown Jr. (Georgia), kicker Aaron Medley (Tennessee), four-star defensive end Joe Henderson (Ohio) and four-star JUCO linebacker Chris Weatherd (Texas). June produced pledges from Alabama linebacker Gavin Bryant, Maryland linebacker Jerome Dews and Florida receiver Brandon Powell, who has since decommitted.
The Vols surged to the top of the recruiting rankings, and they did so even having to recruit across the nation. At the huge recruiting camp The Opening out in Oregon, Tennessee received good news from another class centerpiece on July 3 when four-star linebacker Dillon Bates – son of Vols great Bill Bates – went public on national television with his commitment to Tennessee.
Momentum was adorned in orange and white by Independence Day.
“It’s definitely a class that I think has exceeded expectations, mostly because of how it was built,” Callahan said. “For a staff to come in and get 25 players committed before the start of preseason camp, I think that is just really impressive, especially considering how much out-of-state recruiting Tennessee is forced to do.
“They were able to take advantage of early momentum and getting things going just because of being a brand new staff. They deserve credit for getting this many players before what could be a tough season.”
The last major flurry of commitments occurred in mid-July in connection with another of Jones’ brilliant recruiting creations: Foundation Week. The culmination of the week was a weekend camp similar to Georgia’s “Dawg Night” and Florida’s “Friday Night Lights,” dubbed Tennessee’s “Foundation Day.” The slogan is an extension of Jones’ brick-by-brick campaign, which labels this 2014 class as the first building blocks to help resurrect the stagnant football program. The week – which produced six commitments from major Tennessee targets – leaves UT with just seven spots to fill in this huge class and more than 6 months to do that.
Four-star JUCO wide receiver Eric Lauderdale – a Georgia native who attends junior college in California – got Foundation Week started with a commitment on July 14. Four-star safety Cortez McDowell followed, choosing UT over Georgia, Auburn and Florida State. Florida offensive tackle Ray Raulerson committed two days later, and the Vols added a pledge from four-star receiver Dominique Booth the next day. The week closed with the commitment of Gaulden – Wharton’s four-star defensive back mate at Independence High – and four-star linebacker Kevin Mouhon of Norcross, Ga.
Just last week, the Vols received major news with the commitment of versatile defensive lineman DaVonte Lambert, one of the nation's top JUCO talents. He chose UT over Florida and Auburn and is yet another example of the battles Jones must win -- and is winning -- against conference rivals.
Regardless of position or competition, nearly every Tennessee commitment has helped recruit the players who committed after them. The love they’ve shown them and the publicity they’re shown over social media is something that has resonated with prospects everywhere. It is a way for Jones’s recruiting message to get out, and players have been incredibly receptive.
The results are a beautiful site to Wharton, who settled in as the first brick months ago, long before anybody else believed. He has been a dogged recruiter for the Vols, coaxing some of the nation’s top players to join him in orange.
“It’s a big deal to me,” Wharton said. “I’m trying to make sure while I’m at the University of Tennessee that we win a national championship. It starts with my class. I don’t care if you’re a five-star and play my position, you’ll come in and we’ll battle.
“I want whoever to come in who can help us win a national championship.”
That still seems like a faraway hope for the Vols. But an elite 2014 recruiting class is the first step in returning Tennessee to prominence in the SEC.