When you're a fan of a proud program that has been losing too long, it's easy to focus on what didn't happen rather than what did.
Welcome to National Signing Day 2013 -- where the Tennessee Volunteers fell just short so often. Never mind that the Vols received a commitment from a four-star quarterback in Joshua Dobbs and a pair of three-star defensive ends in Jaylen Miller and Malik Brown who meet major needs in Knoxville. It wasn't enough to please the masses wanting a centerpiece for the class.
Five-star safety Vonn Bell -- a lifelong Tennessee fan who Butch Jones made up major ground on in the past few weeks -- stunned many [including several reporters who prematurely posted that he was signing with Tennessee] by picking Ohio State. For better or worse, the perception that Bell "makes or breaks" this class was rampant among Tennessee fans who follow recruiting.
The Bell news came on the heels of Carl Lawson deciding to stick with Auburn and E.J. Levenberry sticking with Florida State. Also on Wednesday, Tyler Boyd stuck with Pittsburgh, Davin Bellamy chose Georgia, Johnathan Ford picked Auburn and Trey Johnson stuck with Ohio State. But, of course, the major blow was Bell -- the Chattanooga native who went to school at Ridgeland (Ga.) High School -- and there really isn't much that can ease the sting.
While the Vols addressed needs at cornerback, wide receiver, interior offensive line, tight end and quarterback, there are gaping holes at offensive tackle, linebacker, defensive line and running back that simply weren't met. Quite frankly, there aren't enough elite players in this recruiting class to shock the SEC anytime soon, either. When you throw in WE DIDN'T GET VONN BELL!!!!!! in flashing red lights, it magnifies those failures.
Recruiting is perception. It is what it is.
So, lost in the disappointment of not getting Bell and others is the excellent job the staff did to flip Dobbs, get an elite wide receiver like MarQuez North to sign, flip Ryan Jenkins from Clemson, pluck Malik Foreman from Vanderbilt, keep Jason Carr, Cameron Sutton and Paul Harris in the fold when better teams came calling. All of those are strong, positive things that Jones and this staff accomplished. They won't be remembered as much as WE DIDN'T GET VONN BELL!!!!!!! but that doesn't make them any less important.
The three pickups on National Signing Day were big for UT, and Jones and his staff really did about what you would expect for any staff that had less than two months to establish relationships with many prospects in a region they weren't used to recruiting. They did a pretty darn good job, and I fear that is going to be lost in the fact that the big picture still doesn't look rosy for the Vols compared to other SEC teams. The class was in shambles after Derek Dooley was fired, and Jones did a nice job putting together a piecemeal class that currently sits in the top 25 on both Rivals and 247.
All that said, WE DIDN'T GET VONN BELL!!!!!!!!! And that sucks. We're all frustrated and hurt or ticked off. But to guide that anger toward a player like Bell is a bit ludicrous. Urban Meyer sold Bell on winning. That's something that the Vols simply couldn't do. And it's why that has to change. You can't really fault Bell for going somewhere where they're ready to win. We aren't right now -- or at least the perception is that we aren't. While our ranking is pretty stellar nationally, it is 11th in the SEC according to 247 and 10th according to Rivals. Hard to catch up that way...
Where this recruiting class initially fell apart starts with Dooley and his recruiting failures in establishing, building and developing relationships with the prospects. It began with the former coaching staff being unable to win football games. Though Jones and his staff worked their tails off to try and salvage this year's class, they were backed against a wall more than we ever wanted to admit. When you are trying to build relationships in two months that other staffs have had two years to cultivate, these are the results you have to expect.
If this sounds like I'm giving Jones a pass for not getting more "elite" players in this class, that's accurate. But the bottom line is we are paying him a lot of money for results, and he'll need to start getting them soon. He's just facing a frustrating situation. How do you win football games without getting elite football players? How do you convince elite football players to come to UT when you're not winning? That, in a nutshell, is what is facing the current staff.
The SEC is a different animal than it has ever been. Alabama is on top of the world -- in recruiting and in actual football. Florida, Georgia and LSU aren't going anywhere, and they're pulling recruits like crazy. South Carolina has continued its recent string of strong play. Then, you've got new kids on the block like Texas A&M flexing some recruiting muscle on the heels of upsetting national champion Alabama. Ole Miss and Hugh Freeze are about to pull in a top 10 recruiting class, and James Franklin at Vanderbilt is getting better and winning some recruiting battles. Heck, Kentucky had a much better recruiting finish than the Vols.
It's a tough, tough spot for Jones.
But it isn't an impossible spot. Now, we turn our attention on a 2014 recruiting class full of Tennessee legacies and perhaps the best crop of instate talent in years. We've got the spots to sign 27-30 after signing this class of just 21 this year. And the Vols not only have to sign a big class in '14 but an excellent class -- deep and full of difference-makers who can step in and play [well] immediately. They have to sell kids again on coming to the University of Tennessee. They have to make a big splash in recruiting, and there is truthfully only one place where that can start:
On the football field later this year.
Jones has got to find a way to win -- with less talent than pretty much everybody on the schedule. If he can do that, the talent will come. If he can't, we'll keep having disappointing National Signing Days. We have officially fallen behind. Now, it's up to the new staff to catch us up ... on Saturdays, and in prospects' living rooms across the country.
It will have to wait another year, at least.