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First-year Tennessee football coach Butch Jones managed to hide the long hours on the road, the lack of sleep, the ice storms that played havoc with recruiting weekends and the gut-wrenching final decisions that went down to the final moment.
On Wednesday, he managed a smile.
Jones said he was happy with the 21-man recruiting class he unveiled on National Signing Day, even if it wasn’t as full as he might have hoped.
“There’s a process you go through with the first recruiting class,” Jones said at a news conference at Stokely Family Media Center in Neyland Stadium. “A lot of times, you’re restricted by time, so it gets back to relationships. The hourglass turned over on us, but I thought we made up a lot of ground.”
The Vols didn’t make up enough ground to break into the upper half of the SEC in recruiting rankings, nor was there enough time to lure five-star safety Vonn Bell, who signed with Ohio State.
But Jones said the class — which includes five early enrollees who stood up and introduced themselves during the news conference — addressed important needs at several positions and would help lay the foundation for future teams.
“Do they fit in? Do they fit the criteria we’re looking for? I think we were able to attract high-level character guys. That’s the foundation,” Jones said. “A lot of coaches say it. We’re going to live it every day in our program.”
Although the loss of Bell stung — and likely hurt the Vols in the final recruiting rankings — the new staff did land three other targets who announced decisions on Signing Day.
Three-star defensive linemen Jaylen Miller and Malik Brown and four-star quarterback Joshua Dobbs all chose UT over other suitors.
Dobbs had been committed to Arizona State for months, one of eight prospects that Jones flipped from other schools since his arrival Dec. 7.
The final recruiting rankings could still fluctuate, but as of Wednesday night, the Vols were 25th nationally in the 247 Composite, which averages the rankings of every major recruiting service. In the SEC, UT was ranked 11th, ahead of Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Missouri.
Tennessee could have signed as many as 27 players, and until recently it appeared that they planned to sign a full class. But while Jones added no surprise players to the signing list on Wednesday, he made it clear that his staff wasn’t done recruiting for 2013.
“We were extremely selective and we will continue to recruit,” Jones said. “It will be an ongoing process. If we can find a prospective student-athlete that fits the profile of what we want, we will recruit him.”
While the Vols met needs at receiver, defensive back and quarterback, they probably would have liked to add more linemen, especially on the offensive side of the ball. UT also struck out on big-name running backs, flipping East Carolina commitment Jabo Lee in the final days to fill the gap.
“Competing in the SEC, you feel you can never have enough offensive linemen and defensive linemen,” Jones said. “We would like to still continue to add to the line recruiting class.”
As for Lee, Jones said UT running backs coach Jay Graham kept in contact with the Dillon, S.C., prospect even after many teams shied away due to Lee’s season-ending injury.
“He missed much of his senior year, so we went back and watched his junior film, his sophomore film and we even watched some of his freshman year,” Jones said. “What we saw was an individual, that if he had the benefit of a full senior season, would have developed into one of the highest-ranking running backs in the country, and been very highly recruited.”
Jones said he expects the 16 new signees who aren’t already in Knoxville to join the team and enroll during the first summer academic period in June.
The Vols start spring football on March 9, and Jones said the next month won’t be any easier than the last two.
In addition to preparing for spring football and laying the groundwork for recruiting in 2014, Jones still wants to add a few more bodies to the class he just announced.
“It’s a balancing act, and it takes great time management,” he said.
After scrambling to assemble a class in the weeks since his arrival at UT, it’s a hurdle Jones is accustomed to.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.TennesseeBeat.com.