What I think Tennessee's recruiting dominance means for the Vols and their rivals
I know. You’ve heard it before.
You heard at the start of the Butch Jones era that the Vols were on their way back. You heard before the start of the 2016 season that Tennessee was going to win the SEC East. You heard before the 2019 season that the Vols were going to make a significant jump.
By “you,” I’m referring to anyone who paid any attention to Tennessee football in the 21st century. That means Vols fans and non-Vols fans. There have been plenty of times when you saw the Tennessee hype train pick up steam, only to watch it go completely off the rails (end of the Butch Jones era) or come to a screeching halt (end of the Lane Kiffin era).
When Tennessee has a run of recruiting dominance like the one it just had — perhaps I shouldn’t use past tense for that because the Vols probably will have another commitment by the end of this sentence — it’s impossible not to think big picture.
What does this mean for Tennessee? And perhaps of equal importance, what does it mean for Tennessee’s rivals?
It’s not nothing (apologies for my second double-negative sentence of this column). In case you haven’t spent much time on Twitter recently, the Vols went on a recruiting tear past 2 weeks with commitment after commitment:
- April 26 — No. 1 WDE Dylan Brooks (5-star)
- April 27 — No. 13 S Kamar Wilcoxson (4-star)
- April 28 — No. 42 WR Julian Nixon (4-star)
- April 30 — No. 1 JUCO RB Tiyon Evans (3-star)
- No. 1 OLB Terrence Lewis (5-star)
- May 3 — No. 32 S De’Shawn Rucker (3-star)
- No. 9 RB Cody Brown (4-star)
- May 4 — No. 32 OT Colby Smith (3-star)
What do I take from that? Something tells me Jeremy Pruitt’s staff isn’t caught up on the latest season of “Ozark” yet.
At a time when nobody has much of any sort of momentum, the Vols have that in spades. Rising all the way up to No. 2 in the recruiting class rankings is significant, even though at a place like Tennessee, recruiting was never really the issue in the 2010s. It was development.
Starting with Jones’ first full recruiting cycle (2014), look at the imbalance between recruiting class rankings and NFL Draft talent:
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And in the 2018 NFL Draft after Jones was fired in November of the 2017 season, the Vols had 3 players drafted (I didn’t include that year for recruiting because Pruitt took over that class when he was hired in Dec. 2017). For a 5-year stretch, Tennessee averaged 2.4 draft picks per year. That’s for a program that averaged a borderline top-10 class in those 4 years.
This isn’t news to Tennessee fans or non-Tennessee fans. What’s something else that everyone knows? The rivalry struggles.
Tennessee just pulled off an 8-win season, yet it went 0-3 against Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Even worse was the fact that the Vols were outscored 112-30. Check that. Even worse was celebrating being close with Alabama in the second half of a game and talking about whether a quarterback going rogue at the goal line could have flipped a 22-point result.
Fans of Alabama, Florida and Georgia will point to these numbers and say, “uh, tell us why we should care about Tennessee because they landed a few recruits.”
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You know what? I don’t blame rival fan bases if they say they’re not afraid of Tennessee right now. A team that went 3-27 vs. its rivals with an average margin of defeat of 3 scores (17.6 points) shouldn’t scare a ton of people.
But being “afraid” is a far different thing than being aware. Georgia is absolutely aware of what Tennessee is doing on the recruiting trail. I mean, the Vols just went into Georgia and landed 2 Top 25 recruits in the Peach State. And when the Dawgs don’t land a 5-star recruit from the South, these days, that’s considered noteworthy.
If you thought Georgia posting a video of last year’s 43-14 win in Knoxville in the midst of Tennessee’s recruiting run was a total coincidence, well, I’d say you’re a bit naive:
— Georgia Football (@GeorgiaFootball) April 30, 2020
That hit on Brian Maurer still makes me wince.
Here’s the thing. Is it petty for Georgia to post stuff like that? Probably. Should someone in the Dawgs’ shoes remind the college football world of how 1-sided the rivalry has been in recent memory? Absolutely.
But whether it’s Georgia, Florida or Alabama, recruiting against Tennessee is different now. Why? Pruitt and his staff already showed that they’re better at developing talent than any of the 3 previous head coaches before he arrived. Yes, I do think Pruitt operates under a more no-nonsense, Nick Saban-like approach than his predecessor. Does that mean Pruitt is going to become the former Saban assistant to finally take him down? No. At least not yet.
During his weekly appearance on Birmingham-based WJOX 94.5 FM radio program “The Roundtable,” Paul Finebaum had some interesting comments related to Tennessee’s recruiting success catching the attention of the program’s rivals.
“He’s getting players that Tennessee has not gotten in a long time, so he’s learned from others, especially his old boss in Tuscaloosa,” Finebaum said on the show. “I think he feels and senses the momentum, so he’s playing to it and no matter how you slice it, Jeremy Pruitt’s recruiting has been the story of this spring. And the reason why I’m convinced that Tennessee is on the cusp of returning to power is I am hearing criticism from other schools, competing schools – from rivals, that he’s not doing that great.
“I haven’t heard anybody mention Tennessee recruiting in so long, I mean you have to go back almost to me outside of a brief moment with Butch Jones and Lane Kiffin for about 20 minutes, you have to go back to the heyday of Phil Fulmer. It is amazing — the perception out there right now. There’s nothing going on so if you create a perception, it is going to carry you and I think they’re building off of it.”
I’ll agree to disagree that we’ve barely heard about Tennessee recruiting in the past decade-plus. And to be honest, I’m not going to sit here and say that the Vols are on the cusp of returning to power.
But here’s where I do agree with Finebaum. I believe Tennessee is following the blueprint to success. Sustainable success.
Like, if you had told Vols fans during the John Currie botched hiring that coming off Year 2 with their new coach that they had a top-30 defense in 2019, an 8-win season with 4 consecutive wins vs. SEC teams and the No. 2 class with multiple recruits rated 4-stars or better from Alabama, Florida and Georgia, I think they would have been ecstatic.
Pruitt hasn’t been perfect by any means. The aforementioned 2019 struggles against those rivals are still a punchline, as are the Georgia State/BYU debacles. But given what we’ve seen since mid-October of last year, I’m becoming more and more convinced of something — that’s how you build a program.
That’s is how you prevent a bad start from turning into season in which seniors bail on the program. That’s how you make sure you don’t have years without a Tennessee player drafted. That’s how you become champions of something other than “life.”
Now is the time when Tennessee has to capitalize on this. Capitalizing doesn’t mean “East or bust.” The Vols aren’t on Florida or Georgia’s level yet. Until they prove they have a legitimate SEC quarterback, their upside is limited. But capitalizing means not taking a step back in the win column. Capitalizing means staying on the field with the 3 rivals instead of praising hard-fought first halves after lopsided losses.
There’s no guarantee that happens in 2020. Until it does, Florida won’t treat Tennessee like it’s Georgia. Georgia won’t treat Tennessee like it’s Alabama. Alabama won’t treat Tennessee like it’s Clemson. That’s to be expected.
But if the Vols stop being the butt of their rivals’ jokes in the not-so-distant future, we’ll look back on this time with a more universal opinion.
Oh, I guess this was different.