In today's age of coaches using helicopters and "hot sauce" pitches that tell recruits anything they want to hear just to get a signed letter of intent, Tennessee coach Butch Jones is winning over prospects with good, old-fashioned honesty.
Perhaps that's the chief reason why, even in the wake of the Vols' third consecutive bowl-less season, Jones has kept a potential program-changing recruiting class ranked second by 247Sports largely intact.
Nothing that happened this season to UT was a surprise to any of the Vols' verbal pledges; Jones told them it was coming.
His bluntness about the current state of the program has paid off. No surprises in the recruiting pitch has led to minimal defections.
GoVols247's Ryan Callahan covers Tennessee recruiting, and after talking with dozens of prospects multiple times, the lack of attrition from the Vols' class isn't surprising to him. Their commitment list actually has grown to 34 commitments with the pledges of 4-star prospects Josh Malone and Charles Mosley. Said Callahan:
The vast majority of Tennessee's class has remained intact because Butch Jones and his staff have done an unbelievable job of setting realistic expectations and letting recruits know where the Vols are in the rebuilding process. They were telling kids months before the start of the season not to worry about this year and that Tennessee's record this season wouldn't be any indication of what their future there would be like. And it's one thing to deliver that message to kids and their parents, but everyone seems to be understanding and not really worried at all about how things played out this year.
I've been telling people for months that a 5-7 type of season probably wouldn't hurt Tennessee's class much, if at all, because I've been hearing recruits say the same thing about it for months. They've been sold on being the class that comes in and turns everything around, so they're not worried about what happened this season.
Jones' pitch is honest, and it has rang loudly to young men up and down the commitment list. All over Twitter, UT commitments talk about "Team 118" (2014's Vols will be the 118th team the university has put on the football field) and how this class is going to turn around the program.
Also, when Jones sells immediate playing time, players are buying it as well. All they have to do is look on the football field and see it.
While Jones' words have helped UT take advantage of a bumper crop of in-state talent and with a year where an abnormal amount of prospects with family ties to the program are college-ready, the honesty resonated elsewhere, too.
Illinois tight end Daniel Helm saw a major opportunity for early playing time and NFL visibility in Knoxville. When he connected with Jones' genuine nature, it was enough for him to give the Vols his commitment over teams like Ole Miss and Michigan.
Helm identified with that integrity almost immediately.
(Jones) is very honest, or at least it appears that way. He seems to care about his players as if we're part of his family. When me and my dad went on my official visit a couple of weeks before I committed, we identified with his Christian faith, and we thought he was a very trustworthy guy, and I just wanted to play for a man I could trust.
Words like that resonate with a fan base scarred by the lies of Lane Kiffin and the deficiencies of Derek Dooley. When Tennessee played poorly this season, Jones didn't make excuses; only dubbed it unacceptable.
UT fans sick of excuses nodded their collective heads as he said things like that. Then, it's easier for them to believe Jones when he vows that he's going to turn things around.
Jones told Vols fans that he'd focus on fixing the program's woeful Academic Progress Report scores, and following a perfect 1,000 grade in the classroom last semester, that's exactly what happened.
With the renewed excitement around the program and taking care of things on the periphery such as the APR, it removed some of the external obstacles blocking Jones' path of a big recruiting season.
The academic progress was huge for a player like 4-star defensive lineman Derek Barnett, who ultimately chose UT to spend his next four years after graduating from prestigious Brentwood Academy outside of Nashville.
Despite being recruited by top-shelf salesmen such as Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Vanderbilt's James Franklin, Barnett connected most with Jones, he said.
I can ask him anything, and I feel like, when he speaks to me, he's always honest. I'm not surprised by this at all. Coach Jones does a great job recruiting. He expressed to me very early in the recruiting process that this year would be this way. That really stuck with me. That let know that he was always going to be honest with me about things.
Perhaps no recruiting job Jones did this year was more impressive than landing Malone. With UT fading from that race just a few months ago, the head coach reasserted things. He assigned ace recruiter Tommy Thigpen to help land the elite receiver, and Jones himself began leading the recruitment of Malone and paying extra attention to him.
Malone ultimately committed to UT a couple weeks ago.
"A couple of people close to Malone marveled at just how hard Tennessee tried to land him," Callahan said.
That recruiting victory was the cherry on top of a phenomenal class, one that really has the potential to set the foundation of the program.
It's not unprecedented for a first-year coaching staff to have success on the recruiting trail. As a matter of fact, it's fairly common because, as Callahan noted, "coaching staffs have a chance to recruit well in their first year at a program…because they're selling the potential of the future."
But this kind of class after three losing seasons and so much turmoil in the athletic department due to financial struggles and coaching turnover is surprising and a bit unexpected.
Tennessee currently has commitments from 17 4-star prospects and 1 5-star prospect, according to 247Sports. During Dooley's three-year tenure, his recruiting classes averaged eight 4-star players and one 5-star player per class, according to an analysis of rankings listed by 247Sports.
The reason for the state of the program is that, of those 74 players Dooley recruited, 26—or 35% of the prospects—left the program early for reasons other than turning pro. That number will be even higher with this year's necessary attrition.
That's a major reason why UT can sign such a large class, but it's also why the Vols have suffered one of the lowest ebbs in program history. Jones hasn't sugarcoated any issues with any of the players or fans, but he doesn't use them as excuses for losing, either.
The players who have stuck around within the program believe in Jones. So, when a group of jaded UT players longing for a leader find someone they can trust, they share that with the prospective athletes, and that further perpetuates the pitch.
The current players have helped Jones build for the future as well, Callahan said.
Most of the recruits I've talked with over the past year just seem to love Butch Jones' enthusiasm, his concern for his players and his vision for Tennessee's program, and they think he's genuine in everything he's telling them. He sells them on being part of a family, and, to his credit, Tennessee's players have helped him sell that after being around him for the past year. UT's players are confirming to prospects that what Butch Jones is telling them is true, telling kids that they love playing for him and his staff, and that's invaluable in recruiting.
The Vols haven't had a lot to be excited about recently, and another bowl season will come and go with them watching from their campus couches.
But just because that is the current state of the program doesn't mean it's going to be that way forever. National college writers everywhere have taken notice of one of the top recruiting classes in the nation. As UT adds to that list, more positive publicity generates more buzz.
According to Chattanooga Times Free-Press sports editor Jay Greeson:
In truth, recruiting has far and away been the high point of Butch Jones' first year, and that's a good thing. He made that pledge when he was hired, and he has delivered on it by amassing a collection of pledges from high school standouts that some experts in matters of recruiting believe Jones' bevy of ball-players is the nation's second-best group.
Helm admittedly looks at the recruiting rankings a lot. He has been stunned and excited to see just how huge and talented his class has become. Jones told him during the recruiting process how relentless he'd be in selling UT to the nation's top recruits. He told Helm that this was the beginning.
It was just another promise Jones made that came true.
"I think our class looks at it like we'll be the one to get UT back," Helm said. "I think everybody knows Tennessee is a sleeping giant. It's just a matter of time before it awakens."
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