In October 2011 we did a story on the sudden downfall of Tennessee football. Its title rings a little hollow more than four years later, but the facts remain damning: Tennessee signed 31 four and five star players from 2007-2009, but only three became long-term starters.
When we look back on Derek Dooley's recruiting efforts, we see a clear pattern of diminishing returns. The 2010 class he shared responsibility with Lane Kiffin for turned out to be the bulk of the talented 2012 squad: two five stars (Da'Rick Rogers and Ja'Wuan James), seven four stars, and of those nine players only Matt Milton didn't become a multi-year starter. The next year the Vols signed nine four stars with another seven becoming multi-year starters, but the two misses were at the top of the class: De'Anthony Arnett was the Vols' highest rated player in 2011 and transferred to Michigan State, while Cameron Clear was third and was dismissed after catching one pass.
In understanding why Butch Jones struggled in his first two years, some of the burden fell on talent leaving early from the 2010 class: Da'Rick Rogers was dismissed, Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter turned pro. But much of the issue was recruiting at the tail end of Derek Dooley's tenure, both in the 2012 class and in the 2013 group turned over to Butch Jones.
The Vols signed eight four stars in 2012. At the top of that list was Cordarrelle Patterson, who obviously didn't become a multi-year starter but made a big impact in Dooley's final year. Of the other seven, Davante Bourque left the program before taking a single snap, and Omari Phillips left the program when Jones took over. Drae Bowles transferred to Chattanooga in January of last year. Pig Howard was Tennessee's most productive receiver in 2013 and 2014, but was dismissed from the team early last fall. Other than Howard only LaDarrell McNeil was a multi-year starter from the 2012 four and five stars; Danny O'Brien and Jason Croom remain among hopeful contributors for 2016.
And then Butch's first class featured just three four stars and a near miss on Vonn Bell. The three who stayed have been vital in the past and present (Marquez North, Josh Dobbs, Jalen Reeves-Maybin), but singing so few four stars left the Vols with a class ranked just 24th.
Of course, Butch's best work has come in the last two recruiting classes. The Vols have done it with quantity: 16 four stars in 2014, 15 more plus Kahlil McKenzie last year. But Tennessee has also gotten significant early contributions from the highest rated players in those classes. The three highest rated Vol signess in 2014 were Josh Malone, Jalen Hurd, and Todd Kelly Jr, with Von Pearson and Derek Barnett among the Top 10. Last year McKenzie, Alvin Kamara, Shy Tuttle, Darrin Kirkland Jr., and Jauan Jennings were among Tennessee's Top 10. The 2014 group has seen more attrition, with Dewayne Hendrix, Derrell Scott, Daniel Helm, and D'Andre Payne all no longer with the program. We'll see if this spring weeds out anyone else from the last two years. But when you're signing 15+ four stars, you can afford some of that. And when such a high percentage of your very best signees become such a high percentage of your very best players, you set up a year like the one Tennessee is looking at this fall. And many of these kids will still be redshirt freshmen or sophomores this fall, providing quality depth with plenty of time left in their careers to make an impact.
Six days from fax machines whirring to life, the 2016 class includes a pair of four star early enrollees in corner Marquill Osborne and defensive tackle Alexis Johnson, plus five more committed and several others still on the board. But thanks to the quality and depth of Butch Jones' rebuild, Tennessee doesn't really need any of them to step in and meaningfully contribute immediately. Any that can will be a bonus. It's taken time to build it back from such a low point, but the Vols have moved into the Top 10 conversation by building four star depth with consecutive big years, and having a high rate of the best newcomers they've signed over the course of three years becoming the team's best players.