May 18, 2024

Bradford: SEC East window slammed shut on Vols after abysmal recruiting

Tennessee enjoyed a pair of elite recruiting classes in 2014 and 2015, but haven’t recaptured the same success over the past two cycles. As a result, an SEC East title will probably be out of Tennessee’s grasp for years to come.

Photo by Ben Proffitt.

Tennessee quarterback #2 Jarrett Guarantano warms up before the Vols' game against Missouri in Neyland Stadium on Nov. 19, 2016.

College football is the sport that never sleeps.

It’s a machine that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week (though sometimes it feels like eight days a week) and 365 days a year. The machine is fueled on the most demanding and competitive aspect of any sport ever: Recruiting.

We witness the on-field product, but the battles are won behind the scenes in living rooms and on campus tours. Recruiting is king.

Wonder why Alabama has won 110 of its last 123 games and four national championships since 2008? According to 247Sports, the Crimson Tide have compiled the top-ranked recruiting class in each of the last seven cycles. This isn’t a coincidence.

Recruiting isn’t a perfect science. There’s no magic formula that proves whether or not a team will compete for championships. There are countless examples of programs who succeed despite middle-of-the-road recruiting classes, but projecting whether a program is trending upward or spiraling downward still relies heavily on their ability to sell their brand to the top high-schoolers in the country.

For Butch Jones and Tennessee, despite putting together a pair of top-tier classes in 2014 and 2015, the Volunteer brand has taken a pair of sharp blows in recruiting over the past two seasons. These blows aren’t minor dents in the orange and white armor. Rather, the program’s performance on the recruiting trail in 2016 and especially 2017 have not only yielded mediocre results, but they have effectively slammed the window for SEC East supremacy shut on the Vols.

The heralded classes of 2014 and 2015 were expected to deliver Tennessee’s first SEC East title since 2007 this past season. Those classes included high-profile players such as Josh Malone, Jalen Hurd, Todd Kelly Jr., Derek Barnett, Kahlil McKenzie, Alvin Kamara, Preston Williams, Shy Tuttle, Darrin Kirkland Jr., Jauan Jennings and John Kelly.

Fast-forward to the present day, and the classes that recalibrated the pulse of a dormant Vol Nation are suffering from cardiac arrest. Gone are Malone, Barnett and Kamara to the NFL Draft. Both Hurd and Williams opted to transfer. McKenzie, Kirkland Jr. and Tuttle have all struggled to stay on the field due to injuries. Kelly’s skills as a runner were only discovered late last season, and Jennings—arguably the team’s most popular offensive player—was recently cited for drug possession.

It isn’t a stunning development that Jones is still without that elusive division crown.

But if those alleged top-tier classes couldn’t catapult Tennessee over the hump, isn’t it unreasonable to expect the past two classes to accomplish what more talented players couldn’t?

It’s important to stress that the star system used in recruiting is imperfect. If you simply track the paths of every five-star recruit over the past decade, a healthy chunk normally fail to live up to expectations. John Kelly is a perfect example of a player outperforming his rating, as he’s gone from a little-known three-star prospect out of Michigan to Tennessee’s top choice at running back heading into 2017.

However, the ability or inability to nab blue chip recruits is a representation of a program’s status. Five-star recruits line up at Nick Saban’s door in Tuscaloosa knowing full well they might not play for two years because they’re so enamored with the winning culture he’s put in place that they don’t mind waiting.

Meanwhile, you have a coach in Knoxville who referenced the Vols’ massive amount of national exposure last season—which is factual because Tennessee was on CBS for four weeks in a row and participated in three games where College Gameday was present—but can’t translate that attention into an elite recruiting class.

According to 247Sports, of Tennessee’s 28 recruits, 23 of them have a three-star rating. Just two years ago, the same publication stated that the Vols recruited only 12 three-star players compared to 14 four-star players, which gave them the second-best class in the SEC and the fourth-best nationally.

And remember, for a program in the SEC, where they finish conference-wise in recruiting is more telling than the national ranking because essentially half of the top-20 recruiting classes are SEC schools. The Vols might’ve finished 14th and 17th nationally over the past two seasons, but they only finished 7th in the conference on both occasions. That just isn’t the formula for success in the nation’s toughest conference.

For a moment, let’s ignore the entire SEC and focus squarely on the SEC East, a division perceived as so weak heading into last season that Tennessee was a virtual lock to win it. Instead, the Vols suffered head-scratching losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt, and capped off another 9-4 season by ridiculously carrying Jones on their shoulders after defeating an injury-depleted and talentless Nebraska team in the Music City Bowl.

Want to hear the worst sales pitch ever for five-star recruits? “Here at Tennessee, we’ve culminated each of the past three seasons with blowout victories over an inferior Big Ten team in an irrelevant bowl game.”

While Tennessee appears to be stagnating, the rest of the SEC East is beginning to gain strength. Despite its flaws on offense, Florida has won the division two years in a row and finished off the 2017 recruiting cycle on a strong note. Georgia was a Hail Mary away from defeating Tennessee with a deep pass of its own despite having a first-year head coach and a true freshman quarterback. Plus, Kirby Smart—who was unfairly criticized for the majority of last season—just put together the second-best recruiting class in the SEC and convinced more ESPN 300 recruits to play for him than any other coach in the country, with 21.

On the other hand, Tennessee dropped the ball more often in recruiting than they did on the actual football field last season, sans the recoveries. To his credit, Jones managed to seal the deal on a few crucial in-state recruits, which included offensive tackle Trey Smith—the No. 1 overall recruit according to ESPN—running back Ty Chandler and safety Maleik Gray. But Jones also received extensive criticism for failing to persuade not one, but two elite wide receiver prospects (Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers) to attend Tennessee despite playing high school ball only miles away from campus. Clearly, there are holes in Tennessee’s sphere of influence larger than the holes in the ozone layer, and those holes have begun shedding light on the state of the program.

While the class is a mixed bag of a few promising prospects and a host of players who need considerable development before making any on-field impact for the orange and white, this is more of a slight against Butch and his coaching staff rather than the actual recruits.

As previously mentioned, stars carry only so much weight, but because every player transitioning from high school to college is experiencing a seismic shift in both the quality of athlete and football IQ they are facing, player development is essential. Of all the good Jones has done for Tennessee’s football program, an area of inconsistency has been player development. And because the Vols are bringing in more question marks than answers, Jones and his staff need to show exponential improvement in that area if Tennessee is going to compete in the SEC. Otherwise, the 9-4 seasons and stunning collapses will lead to a domino effect where no upper-echelon recruit can trust Tennessee is the right place for their future.

As it stands, with the Vol brand growing weaker, Alabama is continuing to scorch the recruiting trails, Georgia’s recruiting has blasted through the roof and into the stratosphere, Florida isn’t going anywhere, even South Carolina continues to show signs of life and the SEC East window that’s rapidly shutting will only leave Tennessee on the outside looking in.

Edited by Quinn Pilkey

Featured image by Ben Proffitt

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Follow me @DavidJBradford1 on Twitter, email me at dbradfo2@vols.utk.edu for any questions.