Butch Jones had to have a more difficult time pitching recruits this year. Most know that the pitches generally come in two flavors: If you're a championship team, you tell them they can come and be part of a winning tradition, garner a championship or two, and show off for the NFL scouts on national television in big games. If you're not that, then you woo recruits with promises of immediate playing time and sell the vision that they can be the ones to help you build the program into a championship team.
Jones has done an absolutely tremendous job of the latter the last few years. Currently, though, he finds himself in a bit of a no-man's land in terms of recruting. The team is obviously getting better, and most are thinking and believing that the team can at least make some real noise in the championship race this season. He can't yet say, though, that his is a championship team.
But he also can't promise immediately playing time any longer. There's real talent returning to the starting gates this season, and there's real talent behind them already waiting in the wings.
I'm not sure what you tell recruits at that point in the no-man's land. But whatever he told them, they listened and responded. All things considered, Butch Jones and the Tennessee Vols did really well with the 2016 class, finishing 14th in 247's composite team rankings.
Tennessee will return 16 of 22 starters this fall. The other six will be made up mostly of players who have already gained a lot of experience or are blue-chippers with at least a year in the program. And there's not only depth behind those guys, there's depth with talent.
So it would appear that there's no real need and no real weakness, but it's at that point that great teams wrap up the foundation project and start putting the finishing touches on the championship program by further increasing depth and shoring up areas that, while not exactly weak, are not exactly as strong as they could be, either.
And that's exactly what Butch Jones has done with the Class of 2016. Here's a quick look at some of the most important aspects.
Safety is the one unit on which Tennessee has no returning starters. They do, however, have Todd Kelly Jr. and Evan Berry, both of whom got significant experience last year at the position. First up at backup are Micah Abernathy and Stephen Griffin, and also on the roster before today are a pile of DBs.
Add into that mix 4-star/5-star Nigel Warrior (the highest-ranked player in the class) and 4-star Marquez Callaway and all of a sudden you have some competition back there that is about to get real.
Depth (and perhaps another star) at defensive end
You know about our defensive ends on campus. Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen are a two-man wrecking crew, and their backups -- Kyle Phillips and LaTroy Lewis -- ain't bad, either.
Now add the consensus No. 1 JUCO defensive end and consensus Top 5 JUCO prospect overall Jonathan Kongbo to the mix, and hey, look, we could be one of those teams that relieves stars with stars.
The quarterback position has quietly gone from a bunch of question marks to a handful of guys that you can feel really good about. We've gone from wondering whether the starter can play and whether there's anyone behind him any better to knowing we have a baller at the helm, a solid backup behind him, and a couple of prospects behind him with seemingly unlimited potential.
This year's addition to the bottom of the most important totem pole is consensus 4-star Jarrett Guarantano, one of the Top 5 dual-threat quarterbacks in this year's class. Having each rung of the ladder loaded with talent keeps everyone honest and us fans comfortable that even if the wheels come off, we'll be okay.
Josh Malone and Josh Smith are the returning starters at wide receiver. Preston Williams likely is the first backup for either of them. The slot receiver spot, though, as well as the other backup spots on the two-deep, are a bit more up in the air.
Heading in to today, the Vols had consensus Top 10 JUCO wide receiver Jeff George already on campus as an early enrollee, and they added 4-star Brandon Johnson and 3-star Corey Henderson today as expected. A bit of a surprise, though, was the addition of under-the-radar Lattrell Williams, whose star ratings span the galaxy from 2- to 4-stars. Word is that Williams is now the fastest guy on the team. Jauan Jennings and Cody Blanc (along with Jason Croom, who's probably not a slot guy and may be moving to tight end) have experience, so they likely have the inside track for that third receiver spot, but these newcomers will provide some depth and some options and could even challenge for a starting spot.
Backup tight end
Ethan Wolf has the starting tight end spot pretty much locked down, but behind him is a bit of a mystery. The roster lists five other guys as tight ends -- Joe Stockstill, Will Jumper, Jakob Johnson, Eli Wolf, and Neiko Creamer -- but who remembers any of them playing very much at the position? We listed Jason Croom as a possible candidate to back up Ethan Wolf on our first pass at the two-deep back in January, but that's still a bit of an unknown as well.
All of those questions mean that the back up spot is pretty much a free-for-all and includes the three new tight ends that signed today: 3-stars Austin Pope and Devante Brooks, and Andrew Craig.
It was not long ago at all that we were lamenting the sad fact that Tennessee's offensive line had something like a total of five starts to its name. Two seasons later, much of that has been remedied, but some of it was out of necessity rather than choice, and there is likely still much room for improvement. The starters will likely include returning starters Jashon Robertson, Coleman Thomas, Dylan Wiesman, and Brett Kendrick, along with former 5-star recruit Drew Richmond, who redshirted last year. Even the backups are names you know: Dontavius Blair, Venzell Boulware, Ray Raulerson, Jack Jones, and Chance Hall.
But the staff is not going to let the same thing happen to them that "happened" to one certain unnamed former coach, and this year's recruiting class includes consensus 4-star Ryan Johnson, 4-star Marcus Tatum, and 3-star Nathan Niehaus. Wonder of wonders, we don't need any of these guys right now, and they can do what brand new offensive lineman are supposed to do as freshmen: get bigger and stronger and practice so they're ready when it's their turn. And who knows, if someone does go down or get lazy, having options is always good for motivation.
Depth at running back
Vols fans love their current running backs, right? It really doesn't get much better than the duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. But behind them is a little bit scary. No offense to John Kelly (who's done a good job in garbage time), Joe Young, and Jayson Sparks, but Tennessee could use another stud back there in case things go haywire. The coaching staff is hoping that 4-star Carlin Fils-Aime is that guy.
Here's a list of the entire class sorted by 247 composite score:
|Player||Pos.||Ht.||Wt.||Yr.||247 Composite||247||ESPN||Rivals||Scout||Hometown/HS/Prev. School|
|Nigel Warrior||DB/S||6-0||186||Fr.||0.969||4-star||4-star||4-star||5-star||Duluth, Ga./Peachtree Ridge|
|Jarrett Guarantano||QB||6-4||205||Fr.||0.9612||4-star||4-star||4-star||4-star||Lodi, N.J./Bergen Catholic|
|Jonathan Kongbo||DL||6-6||260||R-So.||0.9583||4-star||4-star||5-star||5-star||Surrey, B.C./Holy Cross H.S./Wyoming/Arizona Western|
|Tyler Byrd||ATH/CB||6-0||195||Fr.||0.9552||4-star||4-star||4-star||4-star||Naples, Fla./Naples|
|Marquez Callaway||ATH/S||6-2||170||Fr.||0.9491||4-star||4-star||4-star||4-star||Warner Robins, Ga./Warner Robins|
|Marquill Osborne||DB/CB||5-11||183||Fr.||0.9228||4-star||4-star||4-star||3-star||Cornelius, N.C./William Amos Hough|
|Daniel Bituli||LB||6-3||228||Fr.||0.9149||4-star||4-star||4-star||4-star||Antioch, Tenn./Nashville Christian|
|Ryan Johnson||OL||6-6||275||Fr.||0.9015||4-star||4-star||4-star||4-star||Brentwood, Tenn./Brentwood Academy|
|Carlin Fils-Aime||RB||5-11||175||Fr.||0.9005||4-star||4-star||3-star||4-star||Naples, Fla./Naples|
|Alexis Johnson||DL||6-4||295||Jr.||0.89||4-star||4-star||4-star||4-star||Atlanta, Ga./Mount Zion/Fort Scott C.C. (Kansas)|
|Jeff George||WR||6-6||200||R-Jr.||0.8798||3-star||4-star||4-star||3-star||Leavenworth, Kan./Leavenworth Senior/Southwestern Oklahoma State/Dodge City C.C. (Kansas)|
|D.J. Henderson||DB/CB||6-0||180||Jr.||0.8773||3-star||3-star||3-star||4-star||Lyman, S.C./James F. Byrnes/Dodge City C.C. (Kansas)|
|Marcus Tatum||OL||6-6||265||Fr.||0.8751||3-star||4-star||3-star||4-star||Ormond Beach, Fla./Mainland|
|Brandon Johnson||WR||6-2||175||Fr.||0.8691||4-star||4-star||3-star||3-star||Plantation, Fla./American Heritage|
|Ja'Quain Blakely||LB||6-2||210||Fr.||0.8649||3-star||3-star||4-star||3-star||Moultrie, Ga./Colquitt County|
|Corey Henderson||ATH/WR||6-1||170||Fr.||0.8585||3-star||4-star||3-star||3-star||Shreveport, La./Evangel Christian|
|Austin Pope||TE||6-4||218||Fr.||0.8585||3-star||3-star||3-star||3-star||Knoxville, Tenn./Christian Academy of Knoxville|
|Devante Brooks||TE||6-5||225||Fr.||0.8575||3-star||3-star||3-star||3-star||Bowie, Md./St. John's College (D.C.) H.S.|
|Baylen Buchanan||DB/CB||5-11||187||Fr.||0.8568||3-star||3-star||3-star||3-star||Lawrenceville, Ga./Peachtree Ridge|
|Latrell Williams||WR||5-11||175||Fr.||0.8555||3-star||4-star||2-star||3-star||Lake City, Fla./Columbia|
|Nathan Niehaus||OL||6-6||255||Fr.||0.8407||3-star||3-star||3-star||3-star||Cincinnati, Ohio/Colerain|
|Andrew Craig||TE||6-5||240||Fr.||Knoxville, Tenn./Webb School|
|Logan Punch||LS||6-0||245||Fr.||Knoxville, Tenn./Knoxville Catholic|