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Bamboo, Bricks, and 2016

From Derek Dooley to Butch Jones to the future, Tennessee Football is in the middle of a massive overhaul with rewards both now and later.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

There was a great story on VolQuest this week about the Vols' dramatic roster overhaul (free read).  A quote from receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Zach Azzanni closed the piece:

Coach Jones spends an inordinate amount of time staring at that recruiting board and our team. Piecing puzzles here, using scholarships there, being creative. This guy graduating early, this guy's a grayshirt, he's a fifth-year guy," said Azzanni, who's spurned multiple offers at other BCS-level programs to remain at UT. "That's all he does, is sit in that room and figure out this roster. He's a magician at it. He's always pushing the issue with every single position.

Apprentice magicians in the fanbase stare at that recruiting board too, though ours is probably less decorative brick and more excel spredsheet.  When times are tough and you can't spend reasonable amounts of optimism on the present, you push it to the future, laying heavy bets on those to come.  We knew this was the game with Derek Dooley and 2012 very early on because we could read a depth chart:  Bray, the wide receivers, those offensive linemen, and a defense we thought would be in the third year of the Justin Wilcox scheme.  In the darker days of 2010 in the post-Kiffin haze, we thought about 2012 being "the year".

And we weren't wrong.  There were enough puzzle pieces on Dooley's bamboo board to win nine or ten games that final season.  But these things tend to have a way of working themselves out; as we know, bricks are better than bamboo.

So when we looked at the board in the Dooley/Butch transition, we saw lots of holes and lots of damaged relationships with high school coaches.  We knew it would take time.  So we spent our optimism on the future.  This is, in part, how Riley Ferguson got so famous without ever taking a snap.  Justin Worley won't be around to see Tennessee get all the way back.  But Ferguson might have been.  So he got to wear the cape and the crown for a little while, his name in all caps in A1 on our spreadsheet.

Meanwhile, Butch starting putting caps lock on the whole thing.

The VolQuest story mentions the Vols have turned over 66 roster spots from the spring of 2013 to the present day.  But the future continues to be even more impressive:  by 2015, the Vols will have a chance to start a four-or-five-star at every position on the field except offensive line.  Azzanni mentions the o-line specifically at the end of the VolQuest story as a final piece of the puzzle moving forward; Austin Sanders is the only underclassman on the roster with a four-star rating, with Jack Jones and Zach Stewart committed for 2015 as four-stars.

In 2015 the Vols would still be forced to play several true freshmen to get four-or-five-stars at every position.  But by 2016?  The legacy class would be in their junior year, which would be the last year for the best of the best among them.  Sudden impact players like Kahlil McKenzie would no longer be freshmen.  The Dooley cleanse would be complete, pulled up by the roots with no trace left four years later.

If Butch has a board, I bet he has 2016 written at the top.

It's imperfect and there are never any guarantees.  But when we break out our magic spreadsheets, now close enough to project two years in advance with 22 commits in the fold for February?  The excitement we feel right now in 2014's fall camp gets multiplied going forward when you think about something like this in 2016:

  • QB - Josh Dobbs/Nathan Peterman/Quinten Dormady/Austin Kendall
  • RB - Jalen Hurd/Alvin Kamara
  • WR - Marquez North
  • WR - Josh Malone
  • WR - Vic Wharton/Preston Williams
  • TE - Ethan Wolf/Daniel Helm
  • LT - Jack Jones
  • LG - Austin Sanders/Zach Stewart
  • C - Ray Raulerson
  • RG - Dylan Wiesman/Zach Stewart
  • RT - Coleman Thomas
  • DE - Corey Vereen
  • DE - Derek Barnett/Joe Henderson/Dewayne Hendrix/Jakob Johnson/Andrew Butcher
  • DT - Kahlil McKenzie
  • DT - Charles Mosley/Michael Sawyers/Quay Picou/Shy Tuttle
  • LB - Dillon Bates
  • LB - Cecil Cherry
  • LB - Jalen Reeves-Maybin
  • CB - Cameron Sutton
  • CB - Malik Foreman/Emmanuel Moseley/Evan Berry/D'Andre Payne
  • FS - Cortez McDowell/Rashaan Gaulden
  • SS - Todd Kelly/Jauan Jennings

If you just look at recruiting rankings, and that's still all we've got for another 23 days, that's a starting 22 that can compete for championships in 2016.

There are still questions to be addressed over the next two years, the most important being quarterback which could threaten to unravel the whole thing if Dobbs or Peterman don't mature or Quinten Dormady can't come in and be successful.  There is the aforementioned offensive line, still in need of depth and talent (though I do wonder sometimes if we're shortchanging some of this current group simply because they're not Tiny Richardson and Ja'Wuan James and that crew who was here for a thousand starts).  The Vols are still very thin at linebacker, especially when guys like Jakob Johnson get moved to defensive end.  And there is a built-in assumption that one or two somebodies at defensive end and defensive back emerge from a crowded field of four-stars.  I remember making this argument about the secondary during Dooley's tenure - "We've got like twelve guys back there, four of them have to be good!" - but that's a much more fun argument when it's four-stars instead of three-stars, transfers, and walk-ons.

But you can also see how important a handful of players from the 2013 class are - MarQuez North, Corey Vereen, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and Cameron Sutton - to both the present and the future.  And hey, maybe North and Sutton will turn pro before 2016; if they're good enough to do that, more power to the Vols.  But Butch Jones' ability to find and keep enough players from the hastily-established Dooley/Butch class of 2013 will continue to pay dividends for the Vols.

In three weeks these young Vols will put on the orange and white and go against Utah State and the rest of a daunting 2014 schedule.  Like last year, it will be about the present and about belief in Butch Jones.  But unlike last year, it will be a tangible glimpse of the future.  Every time Jalen Hurd breaks two tackles, every time Josh Malone gets loose in the seam, every time Dillon Bates gets his hat on the football, in the back of our minds, we will celebrate both what's here, and what's to come.

This time, the bricks have names and faces.  What was only blueprint last fall now becomes actual foundation.  And as we have enjoyed Butch Jones and every commitment brick by brick, I'm eager for not just the finished product a couple years from now, but the construction along the way.  There will be growing and there will be growing pains.  But if our hope for the future was real even under Derek Dooley?  How much more now can we put our faith in Tennessee Football going forward?  And how much fun could this be along the way?

This is truly as good as the future has looked in Knoxville in at least seven years.  It'll come.  But right now, it has to wait for the present.  And everybody wearing orange is ready to put their shovel in the ground.

Just a couple more years.  Just 23 days.  Go Vols.