Jones, Vols Load Up on Offensive Talent
By Matt Smith
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This group won’t get the Volunteers back to where they were in the ‘90s, but it’s a solid start to Butch Jones’ lengthy resurrection of a once proud program.
Although barely two months old, the Butch Jones era at Tennessee has helped the Volunteers regain some of the momentum lost during Derek Dooley’s ill-fated three-year tenure on Rocky Top. Holding together and expanding on a recruiting class in a transition year is always a challenge, but Jones and his staff did just that, welcoming 21 new signees to the team on Wednesday.
“Recruiting is a relationship business and I thought they did a great job of signing a class that will make Tennessee proud,” Jones said. “We were extremely selective.”
The class ranks No. 25 according to 247Sports, 11th among the SEC’s 14 teams. While the Vols missed on Chattanooga, Tenn., five-star safety Vonn Bell, who signed with Ohio State, the class is filled with offensive talent. The Vols lose quarterback Tyler Bray and star receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, leaving Jones with a number of question marks at the skill positions.
Perhaps the most important signee is wide receiver Marquez North, a consensus four-star from Charlotte, N.C. North arrives in the mold of Hunter - a big, fundamentally strong receiver with a large catch radius. Running backs coach and top recruiter Jay Graham was able to lure the Tar Heel State product across the state line, despite school and family pressure to stay in-state at North Carolina.
"Marquez North brings a size element,” Jones said. “He can run."
North isn’t the only receiver on his way to Knoxville. In fact, one is already there. Paul Harris, a tall, lanky receiver from Upper Marlboro, Md., enrolled at Tennessee last month. Graham was again the hero of this recruitment, helping sway Harris from USC and former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin, now the Trojans’ receivers coach and strongest recruiter. Ryan Jenkins, a smaller receiver from Marietta, Ga., who is likely to work out of the slot, makes this wide receiver class a well-rounded group.
"All the receivers we signed, I think all their skill sets complement each other,” Jones explained.
Offensive line will be the team’s biggest strength next season, with two future NFL tackles in Antonio “Tiny” Richardson and Ja’Wuan James. The Vols didn’t have to look far to find potential replacements for the dynamic duo, as east Tennessee products Austin Sanders (Cleveland) and Brett Kendrick (Knoxville) signd with UT. Sanders is the more heralded of the two, and was the first commitment in the class, pledging to the Vols in August 2011.
Despite losing out on Bell, Tennessee did pull one Signing Day surprise, flipping Alpharetta, Ga., quarterback Josh Dobbs from Arizona State. Dobbs had been a top target of Jones since he arrived at Tennessee in December. With Riley Ferguson (Matthews, N.C.) also on board, the Vols will have two quality quarterbacks in this class.
“I want alpha-males at quarterback, and we added two of those today,” Jones said.” “Quarterback is the most important position on the field. To have that competitive environment will be very beneficial.”
Although there are some options for position switches upon arrival on campus, the class lacked a true running back until earlier this week. Former East Carolina commit Jabo Lee backed off of his pledge to the Pirates to sign with Tennessee. Lee flew a bit under the radar of many major programs due to some academic concerns early in high school, but running backs coach Jay Graham stayed in contact with Lee and gained his commitment on Monday.
“[Lee] fits everything we do,” Jones explained. “Jay did a great job of once he made the relationship, keeping that relationship.”
The Vols lost a battle with Auburn for Johnathon Ford (New Hope, Ala.), as the longtime Vanderbilt commit signed with the Tigers on Wednesday. As we saw last year in the SEC with T.J. Yeldon at Alabama and Todd Gurley at Georgia, few positions offer the opportunity for immediate impact more than running back. Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane are serviceable, but there’s still a significant talent gap at the position between Tennessee and the conference’s heavyweights.
The class is heavy on Southeast natives, as usual, but the Volunteers did reach into Ohio, where Jones used to coach at Cincinnati, to land tight end A.J. Branisel (Chardon) and offensive lineman Dylan Wiesman (Cincinnati). Both players committed to Tennessee in early January, a month after Jones was hired.
Tennessee has not been as dominant in recent years in the middle and western parts of its home state, but the Vols did land two four-star defensive players from those areas in defensive end Jason Carr (Memphis) and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (Clarksville). The Vols also invaded two states renowned for top junior college talent, landing tight end Woody Quinn from Santa Ana College in California and cornerback Riyahd Jones from Garden City Community College in Kansas.
"Everything is about selling and selling your product,” Jones said of the recruiting process. “Again, we have a great product to be sold. But we have to sell it. I feel like we made up a lot of ground [in the state of Tennessee].”
While this class does come up short when compared to the rivals that Tennessee is trying to catch up to, Jones should be commended for maintaining the core of the class after Dooley was dismissed. This group won’t be that one that gets the Volunteers back to where they were in the ‘90s, but it’s a solid start to Jones’ lengthy resurrection of a once proud program.