By the end of the Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley eras, the talent in the Volunteers' football program had eroded to a level not seen in decades. While no one questioned Butch Jones' chops as a coach and program manager, how quickly he could right the ship in Knoxville would still be dependent upon his ability to (quickly) add premium talent to the roster.
In his first full recruiting cycle as Tennessee's head coach, Jones appears to be proving he can do just that. With just over half a month to go until National Signing Day on Feb. 5, the Volunteers have obtained commitments from 33 prospects -- including 14 early enrollees, more than any school brought in in 2013 (Georgia had 13). These recruits combine to give UT the sixth-best recruiting class in the country and fourth-best class in the SEC, according to the 247Sports Composite Index.
Over the weekend, Tennessee introduced its confirmed early enrollees at its basketball game.
The crown jewel of Tennessee's recruiting class is four-star athlete Jalen Hurd of Hendersonville (Tenn.) Beech. Hurd was among the first blue chip prospects to join the Volunteers' 2014 class, announcing his commitment to Butch Jones' staff in March 2013. The 6'3, 230 prospect could play several positions at the next level but appears to be on track to start out his career in Knoxville at running back. Hurd is the fourth-best athlete prospect and the No. 42 overall prospect in the 2014 class according to the 247Sports Composite Index.
One of the Volunteers' most recent commitments came on Dec. 4 from Gallatin (Tenn.) Station Camp wide receiver Josh Malone, who chose Tennessee over Florida State, Clemson, Ohio State, and Georgia. Malone, a consensus four-star prospect, checks in at 6'2, 191 and is considered the No. 5 wide receiver prospect in the country and the 46th-best overall prospect in the country. Malone is also an early enrollee.
Junior college offensive tackle Dontavius Blair and junior college receiver Von Pearson also made it in early as well, and will immediately contend for starting jobs for the Volunteers.
Several top players are slated to arrive in the fall.
Tennessee's top defensive commitment comes from another in-state product -- Todd Kelly of Knoxville (Tenn.) Webb School. Kelly, a 5'11, 188-pound safety, is a consensus four-star prospect, according the 247Sports Composite Index. Kelly is the No. 6 safety prospect and the 68th-best overall prospect in the 2014 class. Between Hurd, Malone and Kelly, UT has secured commitments from the three best prospects in the Volunteer State.
Butch Jones reached into the Sunshine State to grab outside linebacker Dillon Bates of Ponte Vedra (Fla.). Bates is a four-star prospect who weighs in at 6'3, 220. He is the seventh-ranked player at his position in the 2014 class and the 97th-best prospect overall.
Dewayne Hendrix of O'Fallon (Ill.) committed to the Volunteers on Oct. 27, one week after their 23-21 upset of South Carolina. Hendrix is a four-star defensive end and considered the No. 8 strong-side defensive end in the 2014 class. The 6'5, 254 lineman is the 109th-best overall prospect in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite Index.
With a current class size of 33, the Vols don't have very much room to add more commitments, but their current group should keep them in the top ten if it holds. The class is a huge step in Tennessee's quest to get back to respectability.