By Shaee Flatt
Last week, the entire Tennessee Volunteer fan base was thrilled for its’ future. Butch Jones was the man, and all was good on Rocky Top. Tennessee fans were tweeting their favorite Butch Jones slogans and enjoying the ride. On Saturday, the rebuilding Vols took a beating to the second ranked team in the country, and everything changed. Fans started asking who the next coach will be, they started questioning why he was even hired. Rival fans chimed in saying that Tennessee will never again be good at football. In short, many people were out of their mind. If they even have one. Yes, Butch Jones took his depleted Tennessee roster all the way across the country and got blown out by a very good football team. If one actually thought in their head that Tennessee had any chance in the world at winning that football game, then I can’t help them. However, for those willing to listen, I’m going to try and put everything into full perspective for everyone. Maybe then, “Brick by Brick” will be more than just some phrase that the coaches and fans keep using, but rather it is a catchy slogan that is 100% accurate of what the Vols coaching staff is doing.
First, anyone who knows anything about college football knows that it all starts with recruiting. So lets’ take a look at the Vols past five recruiting classes. We’ll use the rankings provided by Rivals.com.
2009 Recruiting Class: #10 Nationally, #4 in the SEC.
It appears Tennessee had a really good recruiting class in 2009. They signed the two five stars, including the number one player in the nation, to go along with nine other players rated four star or better. The fact is, this was quite possibly the worst recruiting class in Tennessee history, and one of the sole reasons it is taking Tennessee so long to return their football success. Lets’ take a closer look at the 2009 class that was brought in by Lane Kiffin.
Both five stars, Byrce Brown and Janzen Jackson were done with Tennessee football before their sophomore seasons. Also, four star players Darren Myles, Nukeese Richardson, James Green, and Jarod Askew failed to finish even half of their careers at Tennessee. Pretty pitiful, right? And we’re just getting started. In addition to the six players already listed, TEN others would also fail to finish half of their careers at Tennessee. That leaves Tennessee with a recruiting class consisting of six three star players, and that’s it. Let that sink in. Six players, none rated four star or higher, in an entire recruiting class, for a team that plays in the SEC. The most productive player of the class was WR Zach Rogers, by far. After him, only Daniel Hood has even received real playing time. Two players, in an entire recruiting class received meaningful playing time. TWO. If only that were the end of it.
2010 Recruiting Class: #9 Nationally, #5 in the SEC.
Tennessee’s 2010 class consisted was headlined by Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, and Da’Rick Rogers. It was Derek Dooley’s first recruiting class, and while it provided a few quality players, it again left Tennessee without any depth. Of the 27 players signed, 11 were either kicked off, transferred, or left the football team for other reasons. That leaves 16 players, and while it isn’t as bad as 6, it is still pretty pitiful. Also, quarterback Tyler Bray and WR Justin Hunter also failed to finish their careers at Tennessee, due to leaving for the NFL. We won’t count their departures though, as that is something that SEC teams just have to deal with from time to time. When taking only those 16 players, and their rivals rankings, and readjusting Tennessee’s recruiting class accordingly, the Tennessee class would have finished #30 in the country, and #11 in the SEC according to Rivals. Not exactly a winning class.
2011 Recruiting Class: #13 Nationally, #6 in the SEC.
This class has done pretty well for Tennessee thus far. Of the 27 players that were signed, only four stars DeAnthony Arnett, Pat Martin, and Izauea Lanier are no longer on the team. That makes for a class of 24, which is what closer to what Tennessee needs to be successful. However, losing three four stars still would have dropped this recruiting class from #13 nationally to #19, and down to #8 in the SEC. For the most part though, this was a great recruiting class compared to the previous two seasons as it provided at least a little bit of depth for future seasons. Most of these players are juniors or redshirt sophomores at Tennessee now, and many of them are key starters for Tennessee, including linebackers AJ Johnson and Curt Maggitt, offensive lineman Antonio Richardson, defensive backs Brian Randolph and Justin Coleman, and quarterback Justin Worley.
2012 Recruiting Class: #17 Nationally, #6 in the SEC.
The 2012 class for Tennessee only signed 22 players, so there wasn’t much room for error. There was lots of error though. Only 14 of the 22 are still with the program, and it has only been a year and a half. They did lose two players, Cordarralle Patterson and Darrington Sentimore to the NFL, but the other six have been removed or left for other reasons. In addition to those, DT Daniel McCullers was a JUCO player, and is now a senior so he is soon to be gone as well.
2013 Recruiting Class: #21 Nationally, #10 in the SEC.
Only one player, Jabo Lee, is gone from the 2013 class signed by Butch Jones thus far. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this class was SO far behind when Jones got there that it ended up as the tenth best recruiting class in the conference. Derek Dooley, who essentially gave up half way through last season, did the Volunteer faithful no favors during his last months on the job and it really hurt. Most notably, costing the Vols a chance to land five star Safety Vonn Bell, who would likely be starting for Tennessee if Dooley had attempted to at least talk to him.
All in all colleges have 85 man rosters, Tennessee included. However, of their 85 players, Tennessee only has 60 scholarship players. 25 walk-ons are on the current 85 man roster. Most colleges have a full 85 scholarship players. Tennessee doesn’t even have 75% of a full roster. Basically, this leaves the Vols with no depth, and little room for injuries or no valuable replacement if a player doesn’t pan out to be as good as he was expected to be. At Georgia, you bring a kid in, and it doesn’t work out, then you replace him with the next guy up. Same with Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, LSU, and the rest of the elite teams in the SEC. Tennessee doesn’t have that luxury. Not yet at least. If their players aren’t as good as they were expected to be, well too bad, they’re likely better than the walk-on that is behind them on the depth chart.
For example, not including the Austin Peay game where Coach Jones unloaded his bench, Tennessee has played six walk-ons the last two weeks. They were forced to play four walk-ons in the secondary in Saturday’s loss to Oregon. Walk-ons. Playing against the number two team in the country. Maybe that will make things a bit more clear for the “casual viewer” or even for the fan who THINKS he knows what he is talking about.
For now, Tennessee is playing with a depleted roster. They won’t be for long. Butch Jones and the Vols currently hold the second best recruiting class in the country according to Rivals. They can also sign close to 30 players this year. The help is coming, but Tennessee fans must be patient. Tennessee could finish this season anywhere from 5-7 to 7-5, but anyone that has an idea of the hole Tennessee football is in should know that 8-4 or better is extremely unlikely for Butch Jones in year one. It always has been. When Coach Jones came to Knoxville, and came up with slogans like “brick by brick” and “Vol by Vol” he did that because he knew that this was going to process. He knows how hard it is going to be, and how hard is going to have to work, but he will get us there. It will just take time. Give him two recruiting classes, and most of the holes on the depth chart should start disappearing. The team speed, and toughness, and most notably talent will start rising, and that is when Tennessee will truly begin their Rise to the Top. Not now, not while he is still coaching with the same roster that no coach in America could be very successful with. Everyone around the sport of college football agrees, the future is bright for Tennessee.
From the College Game Day crew, to the College Football Live crew, to various sports writers around the country, and to the beat writers that call Knoxville home, everyone agrees. Tennessee is on its’ way back. They also all agree that this season, and probably next season as well, will be tough. Be upset that your team lost, be frustrated that the Vols are still losing to all of their rivals, be angry at the previous coaching staffs and administration for allowing us to fall into this hole, but do not criticize the man that has done everything right, and represented us in an almost perfect way since taking the job nine months ago. Do not call for his head, or start asking who the next coach will be when we lose games against the best teams in the country. Rebuilding a football program is a process, and it starts with a foundation. Right now, thanks to Coach Jones, our foundation is being built the right way. Brick by brick.