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Behind The No. 1 Recruiting Ranking: Beginning To Believe In Butch

With the commitment of Ohio defensive end Joe Henderson on Thursday, the Tennessee Volunteers moved into first place in the recruiting rankings and second in 247Sports. For a program scratching for anything positive recently, that's some positive PR to sell to a crop of talent already believing.

With Jones At the Helm, There May Be Plenty More Highly-Rated Recruits Joining AJ Johnson In Knoxville
With Jones At the Helm, There May Be Plenty More Highly-Rated Recruits Joining AJ Johnson In Knoxville

According to the two major recruiting services in the nation [Rivals and 247Sports] the Tennessee Volunteers are ranked first and second, respectively, in the 2014 team recruiting rankings this morning.

Go ahead, poke holes in it. We've heard it all by now:

"It's May" ...

"The Big Boys haven't even begun filling up yet" ...

"Y'all have 14 commits! It's strength in numbers" ...

"Look at where you are in average star rankings" ...

"Wait till the season starts and UT is struggling yet again" ...

I'm not saying any of this is untrue. As a matter of fact, with LSU, Texas A&M, Clemson and Michigan set up for monster classes, and the usual suspects such as Alabama and Florida State lurking without having even come close to netting top targets, it would be monumental for the Vols to finish this recruiting cycle in the top five.

That certainly isn't out of the question with a start like this. But given the list of players who have the Vols firmly in the mix, it is not unrealistic to believe that, at worst, UT should expect a class between Nos. 8 & 11. An average star ranking of 3.5 would likely get Tennessee in the top 10, and that would be a remarkable accomplishment for Jones' first full class -- especially considering the large, quality group the Vols are lining up to sign.

If you're caught up in the rankings, however, you're missing the point. Instead, Vols fans should -- and, for the most part, are -- focusing on the possibility of having an injection of 30 quality players on a roster desperately needing them. That's the big story here and real reason we should be thrilled.

That Tennessee -- a team that is coming off the disastrous Derek Dooley Era, which was preceded by Lane Kiffin's 7-6 season before bolting to Southern Cal, which was preceded by legendary coach Phillip Fulmer spending his final few years at UT mired in mediocrity and complacency -- has mustered this much buzz on the recruiting trail without having done anything of any consequence on the football field is nothing short of remarkable work by Butch Jones. After all, Tennessee hasn't been TENNESSEE in a long time. The last time the Vols competed for a national championship in 2001, these prospects in the '14 class were 5 years old.

Jones is selling a Sega Genesis to an XBox generation. And kids are buying.

The recruiting ranking is not what this excitement is about -- not exactly, at least. This excitement is about just having excitement in general. It's about being prominently placed in the midst of the buzz that surrounds recruiting.

Everybody knows recruiting "championships" mean nothing if you don't develop the talent. Former Auburn coach Gene Chizik is a prime example of that. Closer to home, Fulmer consistently struggled to develop players later in his UT career. For the first time since Kiffin's mouth was cashing checks his players couldn't cash, the Vols have a reason to be pumped about a recruiting class ... heck, about anything.

Most of the sane fans out there realize that rebuilding this program is going to take more than one recruiting class. We also realize that this current commitment list is a bit light on the type of immediate-impact prospects who are going to give you viability in the rugged Southeastern Conference. Given that UT can and has sold playing time and also given that this season is setting up to be rough with the schedule, it was essential for Jones and crew to get off to a stellar start. He certainly has done that.

Is this the top-ranked class in quality in the country? Likely not, even at this point. But to pretend the Vols aren't a force on the recruiting trail right now is simply silly.

Of course, it's going to take time for Tennessee to become a menace on the football field again. But if you don't believe the Vols are a factor on the recruiting trail, maybe you should take a look at a couple of quotes from a pair of SEC coaches from this week's meetings in Destin:

Said Alabama coach Nick Saban [who, granted, once said Dooley was "doing a fantastic job"]:

"They've got a good coach now," Saban said of Butch Jones. "They've got great tradition. They're going to be good again."

When discussing replicating his top-three recruiting class from last year, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze noted:

"Unfortunately, I don't think it will work as well next year because it seems like everybody else has ratcheted up their game. It sure seems like everybody has upped their aggression. Last year at this time, I felt like we were pushing as hard as any. Now, it's everybody -- Auburn, Tennessee. Last year we never really had to fight Auburn or Tennessee for a kid this early. That's changed."

The early returns are certainly that it has changed for the positive in Knoxville. It has been so long since the Vols were ranked first in recruiting -- at ANY time of the year.

Like Kiffin, Butch Jones is making noise. Unlike Kiffin, he's doing it with his actions instead of his mouth. Where Kiffin tore down UT traditions and put up pictures of Southern Cal players all over the UT football facility, Jones has embraced the Vols history and even injected General Robert Neyland's maxims into his speeches to alumni or media and in discussions with players. He has patched the relationships with in-state prospects and coaches and the ones with former players that Derek Dooley spent three years tearing down. And he's selling a football program that hasn't won anything of any substance in more than five years.

Prospects are noticing, and so are Jones' peers.

Is all that lip service from opposing coaches? Maybe. But the proof that the players believe it is in the early rankings. Let's not kid ourselves, UT is No. 1 and No. 2 in those recruiting rankings because of the quantity of prospects the Vols have already on board. But that does nothing to devalue the level of prospect they've got committed, either. Let's take a look at each prospect briefly and discuss what I believe is the biggest indicator of a player's ilk: their offer sheets.

  • The jewel of the recruiting class is running back Jalen Hurd, a prospect 247Sports rates as a five-star runner and the second-ranked RB in the country. His offer sheet is one of the most impressive in the nation, and he has the ability to step in and immediately battle for playing time. Even UT's staunchest critics would have a difficult time poking holes in Hurd.
  • Next is four-star defensive back Todd Kelly Jr., a legacy who will play safety for the Vols. He's also a local player from Knoxville's Webb School, and he chose Tennessee over an offer sheet of more than 35 of the top teams in the country. Again, few will question TKJr.'s eliteness.
  • D'Andre Payne is a four-star cornerback from Friendship Academy in Washington D.C. who was one of the first national recruits from which UT secured a commitment. He claims 34 offers from teams, including top recruiting powers such as Clemson, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Miami, Michigan, Stanford, Ole Miss, Penn State, Ohio State, etc.
  • Four-star defensive end Joe Henderson, Tennessee's newest pledge, was recently re-evaluated by 247Sports after really showing up well at camps. Though he doesn't have the greatest offer sheet, it isn't bad by any means, and he really had just begun getting noticed. He claimed offers from Arkansas, Cincinnati, Kentucky, Illinois, Louisville, Michigan State, Ole Miss, West Virginia, Pitt and Wisconsin, among others.

Now, let's take a look at Tennessee's three-star prospects. 247 believes UT currently has 10 of them. Rivals has UT with more four stars and eight three-star players. Of those eight, six are 5.7's, or the highest-rated a three-star prospect can be before attaining that fourth star. Ninety points on 247 gets you four stars, and eight of the Vols 10 three-stars have totals at 85 or higher.

Let's take a look at the three-star players and the offers they claim:

  • Treyvon Paulk. The three-star running back out of Alpharetta, Ga., was identified very early by the Vols as a top runner target while they were courting his former Milton teammates Peyton Barber and Carl Lawson, both of which signed with Auburn in the 2013 class. Paulk pledged to the Vols over offers from schools such as Mississippi State, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Louisville, Maryland, North Carolina, Ole Miss, TCU and Vanderbilt. While Paulk has impressed scouts and could be poised to move up in the rankings, that's about the offer sheet you'd expect from a high three-star. 247 has him claiming 20 offers.
  • Ethan Wolf. The tight end from Minster, Ohio, is a 6-6, 240-pound run-blocking force who was evaluated by UT tight ends coach Mark Elder. Following his commitment to the Vols, Wolf received an offer from Alabama. Also among his 18 offers are teams such as Michigan State, Louisville, N.C. State, Nebraska and Pitt.
  • Daniel Helm. The Vols' other tight end commitment is one of the top receiving tight ends in the nation. He is a four-star player on other services but was given three stars by 247. His discrepancy is one of the reasons why UT is rated higher as a team on Rivals than 247. Among his 15 offers were Michigan, Missouri, Ole Miss, Virginia Tech, Wisconsin, Illinois and Mississippi State.
  • Orlando Brown. The 6-8, 345 monstrous offensive tackle from the Atlanta area had offers from more than 30 of the nation's top teams. Though several of those were not committable due to his massive weight gain and struggles with footwork over the course of time since his father Orlando Brown Sr. passed away, he chose UT over Oklahoma and Arkansas. Teams such as Alabama, Southern Cal, LSU, etc. were interested early. He has NFL bloodlines and a massive frame. He is raw, however, and has a ways to go. Still, has a four-star -- or higher -- offer sheet.
  • Lawrence Lee. They say these things all even out, right? Well, Lee -- a 5-11, 167-pound receiver -- is rated a three-star player on 247 and Rivals but doesn't have the offer sheet to show for it. His best offers were Missouri, Memphis, Old Dominion and South Alabama. Still, UT coaches love him in the slot, so we'll see if the offer pans out.
  • Neiko Creamer. There was never much doubt that UT would take the son of former Vol Andre Creamer, and when they saw the 6-4, 222-pound athlete in person, it was a no-brainer. He is incredibly well put-together, and is a bit of an enigma coming off a knee injury that cost him his junior season. Creamer has offers from Boston College, Rutgers, Syracuse and Temple, but it's unclear whether he'll wind up as a receiver [where he's rated on some services], tight end or linebacker. I'd personally like for him to play on defense, and once he does that some in high school this year and gets a chance to show what he looks like healthy, who knows what his ranking will be?
  • Kameel Jackson. Look, there is no doubt that Jackson is a question mark considering UT is currently his only recognized offer out of Blinn College in Texas. But this is a kid who two years ago started as a true freshman at Oklahoma. He has good speed, good quickness and good hands. If his head is on straight, he has already proven he can do it on the highest level.
  • Coleman Thomas. The versatile, 6-6, 298-pound offensive lineman committed to Tennessee in early March, choosing the Vols over Virginia Tech, Virginia, Maryland, Pitt, Wake Forest, West Virginia and others. He was targeted early by Don Mahoney and the Vols, and he gave UT one of its highest early priorities.
  • Vic Wharton. The question for the Independence High athlete is where does he best fit? Will he be a defensive back, like a few other teams like him as? Or will he play receiver, where UT believes he currently fits best? He was Tennessee's first commitment in this year's class, choosing UT over Ole Miss, Cincinnati, Vanderbilt, Wake, North Carolina and Mississippi State. But his biggest value has come on the recruiting trail where he was the class catalyst. He may wind up a valuable on-field player, but he's the kind of guy you have to secure early, and Jones did.
  • Aaron Medley. Finally, UT didn't have to offer a kicker this year. But with Medley -- who had offers from Texas A&M and Oklahoma and interest from Ohio State, Notre Dame, LSU and others coming -- in their backyard, the Vols gave the lifelong fan an offer. He immediately jumped on it, and UT has its man. Quizzically, he's only a two-star prospect on 247Sports, but that's probably because he's a kicker. One kicking camp has already said he's the top kicker in the country.

So, as you can tell, this recruiting class is vastly different than the Dooley classes of recent history. Not only was it normal for the Vols to be sitting with two or three commitments at this time of the year, the Vols were taking pledges from kids with virtually no offers and hoping they'd pan out. While some of those players did, far too many were reaches who either never signed or haven't contributed since signing.

There is some merit to star rankings, as we've seen in the past. And the Vols -- as we've noted above -- are benefiting currently from having 14 commitments. If you go by average star rankings, the Vols are tied for 15th on Rivals among teams with at least five pledges. The Vols are 16th on 247Sports in that same category. Though those aren't the gaudy overall numbers, it's pretty impressive considering the number of players UT has committed. Rivals currently has UT with an average of 3.38 stars per player. For such a large class, that's not a slouchy ranking.

Also take into consideration that junior college players essentially haven't been evaluated yet, and Jones is sure to seek immediate help there. The JUCO ranks have been good to UT in recent memory, and Jones has playing time to sell.

Also remember these things when scrutinizing UT's recruiting class:

  • Tennessee can sign up to 30 players this year. So, in a class that big, there are going to be several three-star players. What Jones and his staff have done is go out and identify targets they love and can get early, and they'll exhaust efforts on a narrower list of prospects to close out the class.
  • These coaches are still getting their feet wet in establishing relationships with players. Give them even more time -- not to mention the outside chance there is some success on the football field -- and these Vols coaches will only recruit better.
  • The Vols are high on the list of several star prospects who would continue to keep them in the conversation of the top five in recruiting rankings. Below is a list of players off the top of my head that UT is firmly in the top three for. I'm sure I'm missing some:

4* OLB Dillon Bates
4* OLB Kevin Mouhon
4* CB DJ Smith
4* CB/S RaShaan Gaulden
4* DE Dwayne Hendrix
4* DE Derek Barnett
3* OT Dontavius Blair
3* MLB KeShun Freeman
4* ATH Evan Berry
3* OLB Elliott Berry
NR JUCO OLB Chris Weatherd
4* S Cortez McDowell
5* QB David Cornwell
3* ATH Stanton Truitt
4* WR Dominique Booth
4* RB Akeem Judd
4* WR Josh Malone
4* WR Eric Lauderdale
4* CB Wesley Green
4* DT Poona Ford
3* DT Michael Sawyers

Other players such as 5* CB Adoree Jackson and 4* QB DeShone Kizer have Tennessee firmly in the mix and could wind up in Knoxville depending on what happens with other prospects.

All this is not even mentioning UT already has three commitments for the 2015 class and another one for the 2016 class in the short time Jones has been at the helm.

There is some general concern, of course, about the on-field product this fall affecting the momentum that Tennessee has built. The Vols are expected to be bad in 2013. They had the worst defense in school history last year, are breaking in an entirely new set of offensive skill players and have a brutal schedule. If a poor season in Knoxville follows this hot start, will recruits begin jumping off the ship? How will this coaching staff handle players wanting to "look around" later in the process, especially if it's due to a poor product on the field?

Those are questions that cannot be answered right now. But following the mass skepticism in the Big Orange Nation after Jones was hired last December, you'd find few out there who'll tell you they aren't thrilled with what Jones has been able to do thus far. At his introductory press conference, Jones noted that there was a time when SEC stalwarts Nick Saban and Les Miles had no SEC experience. A school gave them a chance, and they worked their way into becoming czars of powerhouse programs. Their success was built on fertile recruiting grounds. Before they had success on the field, they had success in recruiting rankings.

It's a blueprint Jones is following thus far. For those skeptics who crow that "it's only May," well, is there an alternative? Here's some news: It'll be June tomorrow. I'd much rather be first now than nowhere near the top. There is a long way to go, but this is as impressive a start as any UT fan could have asked for or any opposing fan would have believed.

So, it's perfectly reasonable for Tennessee fans to be thrilled with what's happening on the Hill. Let's just hope Butch can keep it going.