Butch Jones introduces early enrollees
On a National Signing Day in which ESPN cameras lurked around every corner and Tennessee used three live video streams to beam footage to fans, coach Butch Jones offered viewers everything they craved except one thing.
“There was basically no drama today,” said Jones in a summation Wednesday that was a mix of excitement about his new players and concern about the outsized expectations being heaped on them.
The Vols signed 18 new prospects to join the 14 who already enrolled in January, creating a massive class that Jones hopes will provide an injection of speed and talent into a program that has suffered four consecutive losing seasons.
“A few months ago I sat up here and told you in order for us to move this program forward, we needed to create depth, we needed to create competition and we needed to improve our overall team speed, our size, our quickness, our explosiveness,” Jones said. “I believe we were able to do that.”
They did so with very little late intrigue, although there were a handful of changes that impacted the final composition of the class.
The Vols lost defensive lineman Cory Thomas, a “soft” verbal commitment since November, to Mississippi State. That defection was a surprise only because most expected him to switch to Clemson.
UT essentially replaced Thomas with Michael Sawyers, a defensive lineman from Nashville who had been committed to Vanderbilt before the departure of coach James Franklin to Penn State.
The Vols also appeared to pare two verbal commitments off their list, nudging aside linebacker Jerome Dews and offensive lineman Orlando Brown.
Dews still participated in a signing ceremony at his Maryland high school wearing an orange blazer. He said he plans to enroll at a prep school.
Brown landed quickly with a new team, signing with Oklahoma later in the afternoon.
After those subtractions, Tennessee’s 32-man class is actually considerably smaller than it appeared it might be just a few months ago. It’s impossible to say with certainty how many scholarships Tennessee has to offer, but the most reasonable guess is 31 — the NCAA-maximum 25 in 2014, plus six more that could be counted against 2013.
Jones said all the talk of a numbers crunch was overblown, but his comments suggested that Tennessee planned to sign more players than it had scholarships to give.
“It’s very simple,” Jones said. “We were able to count numbers backward, count a couple numbers forward. We had a plan.”
Asked to elaborate on counting forward, Jones described what is commonly called “gray-shirting.”
“Sometimes an individual will delay their enrollment for a semester,” he said.
Jones did not say who might be a gray-shirt candidate. It was also unclear if Dews would fall into that category. Although Dews seemed eager to enroll at UT after his prep school stint, he will be free to attend any university and the Vols could choose not to recruit him in the next cycle.
In any case, the math is unlikely to obscure what will likely be the highest ranked Tennessee class in several years.
The Vols are ranked No. 7 in the 247Sports Composite, which uses input from every major recruiting service.
The Vols finished No. 8 in 2010, former coach Derek Dooley’s first year at the helm, and No. 7 in 2009, Lane Kiffin’s lone season.
The SEC remains the nation’s most talent-rich conference, with seven of the top 10 teams in the 247 Composite. The Vols are below Alabama (first), LSU (second), Texas A&M (third) and Auburn (sixth) and ahead of Georgia (eighth) and Florida (ninth). Auburn jumped ahead of Tennessee on Wednesday in 247’s rankings.
Among the players who signed on Wednesday and will arrive this summer, safety Todd Kelly and linebacker Dillon Bates were rated the highest by recruiting analysts.
Kelly and Bates are among four players in the class with fathers who played Tennessee football.
That family connection, combined with a strong crop of in-state talent, helped give the Vols an early boost in this class.
The rest of the signees were convinced by the long-term relationships that Jones promised to forge after he scrambled to assemble the 2013 class just weeks after being hired.
“The relationships and the trust factor have been over a year in the making,” he said.