By Steve Williams
Butch Jones, new University of Tennessee head football coach, was asked about Vonn Bell – a 5-star recruit who picked Ohio State over the Vols – early in his National Signing Day press conference last week He gave a brief but polite answer and then added he would prefer not to comment on other schools’ signees.
This exchange with the media, in a way, reminded me of a scene from the popular sports movie Hoosiers. Remember when the Hickory High students started chanting, “We want Jimmy! We want Jimmy!” when their basketball team was introduced without their star player.
Irritated by the students’ plea, Coach Norman Dale went back up to the microphone, waved his hand to hush the crowd and addressed the issue: “I would hope you would support who we are and not who we are not… This is your team!”
The same could be said for UT’s Class of 2013 football signees. It may not include Bell, the highly rated safety from the Chattanooga area, but this is your team of the future, if you are a UT fan.
It includes 21 young men who wanted to sign with the Vols.
Two of those – offensive lineman Austin Sanders of Bradley Central and defensive lineman Jason Carr of Memphis White Station – have already shown special loyalty to Tennessee.
Sanders committed to UT prior to his junior season. An ESPN and Rivals 4-star player, he was good enough to go elsewhere.
Carr could easily have reneged on his commitment. He was recruited by other schools late, including Alabama, but resisted.
“Jason is Tennessee through and through,” said Coach Jones. “He grew up wearing the orange . . . He held true to his word.”
Carr is a 6-5, 260-pounder with a 4-star rating. He was the state’s No. 3 prospect and the No. 10 overall strong side defensive end in the nation, according to 247Sports.
Sanders (6-5, 284) can play all five OL positions. He was No. 8 among state prospects and No. 20 nationally among offensive tackles, according to Rivals.
UT fans also can appreciate Charlie High’s desire to play for the Vols. The state record-setting quarterback who led Christian Academy of Knoxville to back-to-back state titles chose to be an invited walk-on instead of signing scholarship papers elsewhere.
Overall, Jones and his staff assembled a respectable class, considering they only had “31 permissible recruiting days” in which to work. As for the ratings, Tennessee has seen better days. Rivals had the Vols ranked 10th in the 14-member Southeastern Conference. On the national scene, the Vols were ranked 20th by Rivals, 25th by 247Sports and 29th by ESPN.
The real progress Jones has made in his first two months on the job can’t be seen in these numbers. But he appears to already have made great strides in improving the football program’s relationships with former UT players and current high school coaches across the state. Mending those ties will certainly pay off in future recruiting classes.
Recruiting rankings are subjective. There have been plenty of cases where 3-star prospects developed into better players than 5-star prospects. Only time will tell how well and how much this crop of new Vols will contribute.
“The challenge begins now to develop these individuals” as players, citizens and students, said Jones.
Tennessee came up short in filling its needs at some positions, but that shouldn’t be alarming. A team is made up of four or five recruiting classes, so there is always time to fill shortages.
This year’s class is particularly thin at running back and linebacker, with only one signee at each of these positions.
The strength of the class is wide receivers, headed up by the Vols’ highest rated signee – MarQuez North (6-4, 214) of Charlotte. He was the No. 1 prospect in North Carolina and is rated by Rivals as the No. 2 WR in the nation and No. 37 recruit overall recruit.
Five wide receivers in all were signed, which should help make up for the loss of Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter and Zach Rogers from last season’s squad.
Ryan Jenkins of Marietta, Ga., is another 4-star WR signee. His dad, Lee Jenkins, was a defensive back for the Vols from 1980-82.
Tennessee also picked up recruiting points late with the addition of quarterback Josh Dobbs of Alpharetta, Ga., who had been committed to Arizona State. ESPN rates him as the nation’s No. 4 best dual-threat QB and 247Sports ranks him No. 8 among pro-style quarterbacks. He also is a 4.0 student who plans to study aeronautical engineering.
Dobbs gives the Vols two “Elite 11” quarterbacks in the class. The other is Riley Ferguson from Matthews, N.C. Regarded as “highly competitive,” he led his Butler High team to state titles in 2010 and 2012. Ferguson, rated a 4-star player by ESPN, passed for 301 yards and five touchdowns and was named MVP in this past season’s championship game. The word on him is “he can make every throw on the field.”
Late pickups for Tennessee also were defensive linemen Malik Brown and Jaylen Miller.
Brown, who was committed to Syracuse until Doug Marrone was named Buffalo Bills coach, is a former high school teammate of current UT linebacker Curt Maggitt.
Miller, the No. 5 prospect in South Carolina, is known for being “disruptive.” He had 27 sacks in helping lead Gaffney to a Class AAAA state crown.
Coming off probably their worst season ever on the defensive side of the ball, the Vols also will be looking for help from newcomers Riyahd Jones and Corey Vereen and possibly Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton.
Jones was rated No. 7 among junior college cornerbacks. He’s 6-0, 186 with 4.49 speed in the 40.
Vereen was rated the No. 21 linebacker in the nation by ESPN. The 6-2, 230-pounder was among five early enrollees. He is “intense and relentless” as a pass rusher off the edge.
Reeves-Maybin, one of three signees listed as “athletes,” was rated as Tennessee’s No. 5 prep prospect. Called “smart and tough” and possessing “great leadership skills,” he played outside linebacker at Clarksville Northeast.
The versatile Sutton is listed as a wide receiver and cornerback. He played corner and wideout in high school in Jonesboro, Ga., and also was a kick returner and punter. He also was a three-sport prep athlete, playing basketball and baseball, too.
“We were extremely selective in the (recruiting) process,” said Jones.
“I think we were able to attract high level character players, and that was the foundation.”
And those were the guys Coach Jones wanted to talk about on his first National Signing Day at Tennessee.