The mood on Butch Jones' first signing day, February 6, 2013, was colored greatly by one name: Vonn Bell. It seemed like the Vols had him, and then in the final moments he went with Ohio State instead. Butch Jones missed on his five-star and missed on a chance to win the fanbase.
It didn't take long for that to change: five weeks later Jones landed commitments from, among others, Todd Kelly, Jr and Jalen Hurd in a five day period. The surge Jones instantly created in recruiting during mid-March 2013 has become inertia, as the Vols have been a top five program in recruiting since then.
But as now two of those elite classes prepare to wear the orange & white in 2015 and the Vols try to make the proverbial leap, it's very important that Tennessee won't be trying to win with only freshmen and sophomores. The nation-leading 23 true freshmen who played last year, 10 early enrollees, and one Kahlil McKenzie (and maybe one or two others who aren't on campus yet) will do a lot of the heavy lifting. But Tennessee still has juniors and seniors in key positions who will be needed to make some of the biggest contributions for Team 119.
Tennessee has 17 seniors on its current roster, four of them junior college additions from Butch's recruiting. The decision to redshirt Curt Maggitt in 2013 will pay clear dividends for both the player and the team this fall. From there, you have just a handful of Derek Dooley recruits left as important senior contributors: Pig Howard, Brian Randolph, LaDarrell McNeil, and a trio of interior linemen waiting to see how things shake out up front in Mack Crowder, Marcus Jackson, and Kyler Kerbyson.
But four of the players Tennessee will need the most this fall are juniors, meaning some of Butch's most meaningful work in recruiting (and clearly player development) came in the weeks leading up to February 6, 2013. We were caught up in missing on Vonn Bell, but what Jones did in a very short amount of time has a chance to make the biggest difference for Tennessee in its most pivotal year.
Keeping Jalen Reeves-Maybin & Cameron Sutton in the fold
JRM wasn't really a challenge: the four-star in-state player committed to Derek Dooley on August 10, 2012 and never swayed in the transition, even taking a visit to Knoxville the week the Vols played Kentucky with Jim Chaney at the helm. We weren't really sure if he would play safety or outside linebacker when he got here, but after shining as a special teams demon as a freshman, he made the leap as a sophomore starter at linebacker with 101 tackles (one of only 91 players in the nation to get 100+), tying A.J. Johnson for the team lead, and 11 TFLs.
Cameron Sutton also committed to Dooley's staff in August 2012, but the clearly underrated three-star became more of a soft commitment in the transition to Butch Jones. Sutton was heavily pursued by Auburn and the Mississippi schools, taking an official visit to The Plains on January 11, 2013. But Butch and company were eventually able to hold him with an official visit to Knoxville the following week.
Sutton was the 11th highest-rated player in Tennessee's 2013 class. He didn't enroll early. And he started immediately.
It's hard to measure Sutton statistically because lots of teams just stopped throwing at him. Even so, last fall he finished in a tie for 14th nationally (and second among sophomores) in passes defended (13 PBU + 3 INT = 16 passes defended). Tennessee may still be looking for definitive answers in its 2015 secondary, but it has its shutdown corner in Sutton because Butch Jones and the Vols saw the value in a three-star and kept him from pledging elsewhere when his staff came on board.
Getting Marquez North from North Carolina
The nation's #2 wide receiver in 2013 according to Rivals named Tennessee and North Carolina as his co-leaders on November 9, 2012 (shout out to 247's timelines for research on this story). Derek Dooley and his staff had plenty of weaknesses, but getting elite wide receiver talent on campus was one of their greatest strengths. Dooley was fired a little more than a week later; between naming the Vols as a co-leader and Butch Jones being in Knoxville 48 hours, North had visited Chapel Hill twice and Clemson once.
Butch got North on campus for a visit on January 12. He went back to Chapel Hill on January 18. But on January 30, North chose the Vols.
Like Sutton, North didn't enroll early but started immediately. And his two game stretch against Georgia and South Carolina made him a star thanks to his picture perfect end zone grab against the Dawgs, and 102 yards on three spectacular grabs against the Gamecocks. Plain and simple, Tennessee doesn't upset an eventual Top 5 team without Marquez North.
The main drawback with North has been injury, missing the Kentucky game in 2013 and the last three games of 2014. After getting banged up at South Carolina he didn't catch a pass against the Gamecocks or Wildcats last fall. But there is no doubt he is Tennessee's most talented receiver and a highlight waiting to happen on every drive. He led the Vols in receiving yards as a freshman and finished third on the team in receptions and yards as a sophomore despite essentially missing five games. If he's healthy, he's the downfield weapon Tennessee's offense needs...perhaps even more now that Butch Jones and company and fully stocked the cupboard at wide receiver and defenses will be less likely to bracket him.
Flipping Josh Dobbs from Arizona State
Vonn Bell got the attention, but the most important thing that happened to Tennessee Football on February 6, 2013 was a nerd from Alpharetta chose Tennessee's aerospace engineering department and its football team over Arizona State.
(By the way, Dobbs is an interesting point of reference, at least among Tennessee fans, for the way we think about recruiting and the emergence of consensus ratings. Dobbs was a three-star in Rivals' rankings, 20th among pro-style quarterbacks. Three-star QBs don't move the needle among the fanbase. But Dobbs was a four-star not just according to 247, but in their composite ratings, the second best player in Tennessee's 2013 class. If more of us valued the composite ratings two years ago, more of us would have been excited about Dobbs at the time, with or without the Vonn Bell news.)
Dobbs' journey from there has been an interesting one: pressed into action when Justin Worley went down against Alabama as a freshman, having his moments but also a disastrous start in the Vanderbilt loss that year, the whole Riley Ferguson drama, the coaching staff's decision to try to redshirt him last fall, another Worley injury, and then his sudden maturation from That Guy to The Guy. But he wouldn't have had the chance to be The Guy if Butch hadn't convinced him to stay closer to home and play for the orange and white. Tennessee would not have wanted to go through the last two years without Josh Dobbs. And he may be the single most important player for our success in 2015.
Butch Jones gets all kinds of well-deserved credit for what he's done with the Classes of 2014 & 2015. But his work in his first two hectic months will lay the now-upperclassmen foundation for the year we hope the Vols rise from the doldrums of five to seven wins and compete for championships once more. We didn't know it at the time, but what he did in his first weeks on the job was a clear sign for his eye for talent and recruiting prowess, and the Vols' development of those first recruits could lead to the biggest wins yet for Butch Jones and Tennessee.