Despite having one of the richest football traditions in the country, Tennessee football has been running on the mediocrity treadmill, without a 10-win season since 2007. That was Phillip Fulmer's last strong campaign before the following season's 5-7 saw him get the boot so the program could bring in the high-profile Lane Kiffin.
Fullmer was a brilliant recruiter who was able to consistently draw top classes to Knoxville. This isn't as easy as one might presume.
The state doesn't supply all of the talent a blueblood program needs, and the state's most talented area, Memphis, is in closer proximity to much of the SEC West then it is to the Volunteers' campus in Knoxville.
Competing against all those schools for in-state talent is a major resource drain, comparable to Arkansas relying on DFW kids but having to beat out local Big 12 schools. After that, a Tennessee coach still has to go out of state and beat some teams on their home turf.
So far, Butch Jones has been able to do this, with his first full-cycle class in 2014 finishing No. 7 in the 247Sports Composite and the 2015 class finishing No. 4. Class rankings can be deceiving and essentially only tell you where the well-regarded talents are going. They don't speak to fit or context, and they don't exactly approach the scientific method in their process.
There's no doubt that Tennessee landed some of the most well-known prospects, with 16 of their 29 players rated as blue chips. The Vols also landed an above-average 10 early enrollees, who are already on campus in the strength program, preparing for spring ball.
The question is, do these players check the boxes Tennessee needs? We don't know how these players will turn out, but we can gauge whether they have the tools to match Jones' vision.
Jones is an offensive coach in background. He is attempting to modernize the Volunteer attack with a spread scheme that still uses tight ends, a scheme similar to what Kurt Roper tried at Florida.
That means three-receiver sets and shotgun formations with an emphasis on running the ball, combined with a quick passing game heavy on timing. It's a ball-control approach that tries to use spread-option tactics to give the QB quick reads. This requires many components, some of them hard to find.
Quarterback: Most of the offense is about delivering the ball on time. But the use of the shotgun spread means that there's a healthy amount of QB run game as well. A quick thinking dual-threat is ideal. Quarterbacks get coaches hired and fired, and Jones clearly had that in mind when he took three four-stars in this class.
Sheriron Jones is a raw, athletic project who doubles as a receiving prospect, thanks to his length (6'3) and explosive first steps (38.9-inch vertical) if he can't adjust from the "chuck it deep or scramble" offense he operated in high school. Early enrollees Jauan Jennings and Quinten Dormady already have an aptitude for making quick decisions and delivering accurate balls, while each can also run. Dormady might be the next Texas quarterback that Longhorn fans wish their team had pursued harder.
Offensive linemen: The Volunteer running game is the usual spread blend of zone and man blocking, with inside and power serving as the main components. Their approach to zone is more about controlling defensive linemen with double teams while sweeps or option reads serve to keep linebackers from aggressively filling.
They're looking for players who can get low and drive defenders off the ball along the interior. Their tackles need to be athletic enough to pass protect against top edge rushers.
Jones grabbed length, with multiple prospects who are listed as "tackles" but will undoubtedly move inside and find their mobility put to use as pulling guards in power schemes.
It's essential that new coaches stock up on numbers at OL early, so that in years three and four, when their athletic directorsare determining whether to extend or terminate their contracts, the team has a veteran line. The Vols took five, including early enrollees Chance Hall (a developmental athlete) and Jack Jones (possible mauling tackle) plus Memphis bright star Drew Richmond, who looks like a future left tackle.
Tight end: Jones' offense asks a lot of this position, which has to be proficient at trap and kickout blocks from the H-back spot, double teams on the edge as a TE, and attacking the flats and the seam in the passing game.
Tennessee only has one in the class, but they might have found a gem in three-star Kyle Oliver. More numbers might have been nice, but the Vols took two last year, including Ethan Wolf, who started as a true freshman. Oliver has great acceleration running routes, great hands, and the necessary frame and scrappiness to become an effective blocker. He's listed at 6'5, 230, though he might be smaller, but still good enough to handle this versatile position.
Running back: This offense likes to make use of all-purpose backs and inside runners, since it'll flare out the RB into the flats to catch quick passes while also requiring players who can run through arm tackles.
After A&M picked Kendall Bussey out of the Vols' pocket, they were left with four-star JUCO Alvin Kamara, a blazing fast early enrollee. Kamara isn't a true inside runner, but more of an all-purpose back who's looking to shift into high gear as quickly as possible. That's not a style conducive to running between the tackles, but it should be easy to get him touches in space.
In terms of adding a potential main ball-carrier, the Vols came up short. That shouldn't be a major problem on the field, with 1,120-yard rising sophomore Jalen Hurd likely around for another two seasons.
Perimeter weapons: The offense makes it easy to get the ball into the hands of fast players, but if it doesn't have guys who can turn a screen, sweep, or quick pass into a big gain, it can stall.
It's possible Kamara or others end up here. But UT also took Vincent Perry, an explosive runner who's been able to translate his fluidity and hands into effective route running in high school. Think Byron Marshall after his conversion to wide receiver.
Vertical threat: On the outside, the Vols need a player who can stretch the defense, be a big target, and lend physicality on the edge as a blocker. This spot is the final ingredient for a good smashmouth spread offense.
Tennessee found a good one with four-star Preston Williams. At 6'4, with great quickness (4.22 shuttle time, 33.7-inch vertical) and promising power that should make him an effective blocker and hard to press (39.5' power ball toss), Williams is the ideal athlete at outside receiver.
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The defense is standard fare for a modern scheme and is comparable to Will Muschamp's variety of 4-3 multiple fronts. Coordinator John Jancek is looking to outnumber or outscheme the running game by dropping safeties, zone blitzing, and disguising it all with late shifts.
There's a premium within this scheme on having disruptive athletes at DE and linebacker, cornerbacks who can be trusted to control the deep passing game, and safeties who can lend support in each of those roles.
Inside the triangle: The Vols move people around so much that they depend on having players at middle linebacker, nose tackle, and defensive tackle who can play through blocks.
This is probably where the Vols did the most damage, starting with five-star defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie, who physically resembles a college upperclassman rather than a high schooler, at 6'3, 327. McKenzie's length and raw power should make him into an effective space-eater in college. If that weren't enough, the Vols also got four-star early enrollee Shy Tuttle, who is similarly freakish and moves absurdly quickly for a 320-pounder.
Quay Picou is a stud athlete with long-term potential, and inside linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. can serve as the point man of the triangle, with size to play between the tackles but athletic range to pursue off-tackle.
Edge pieces: The Vols play multiple fronts and occasionally use a five-tech strongside end (supported by a linebacker against bigger formations), allowing both ends to attack the edge against spread sets. Outside linebackers should be good edge/blitz players, but they need to be able to play coverage.
Jones took a lot of numbers, with five recruits (unless four-star early enrollee DE Kyle Phillips grows into a DT) with a particular eye for long, explosive players who will be murder attacking the edge, stunting inside, or dropping into coverage. If Phillips maintains his athleticism and speed at 260-plus, he'll become a household name.
Coverage men: The Vols need outside athletes who can be trusted not to be beat over the top, but those athletes are generally free of major run assignments and protected from doing much other than playing coverage. The nickel will sometimes play on the edge in run support, but more often he's a coverage player who frees up safeties and linebackers.
With the exception of 6'2, four-star JUCO corner Justin Martin, the Vols relied on smaller athletes with potential upside. Martin will undoubtedly be put to immediate use as a lockdown player, replacing Justin Coleman.
Jocquez Bruce and John Kelly are raw athletes who should become capable of running with top receivers, and Darrell Miller is more of a press corner who may struggle playing deep coverage. Other than Martin, there aren't top "nearly there" talents here like at other spots. The Vols staff will have to do some work.
Support players: Safeties are the key to this scheme. Their ability to erase mistakes, replace blitzing linebackers in coverage or in the box, and provide extra numbers against the run makes everything come together.
The Vols did well with their two takes, who are different enough that they could share the field after a few years of development. Micah Abernathy is listed as a corner, but his large frame and physicality scream strong safety. Early enrollee Stephen Griffin is the real prize. He has the quickness to pick up a receiver, cover ground on the back end, or provide timely run support from a two-deep shell.
Putting Tennessee back on the map
Jones did a great job dominating the region, with eight players from Tennessee, 11 from neighboring North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia, and then a smattering of national recruits from JUCO schools, the Midwest, Texas, and California. A healthy Tennessee recruiting strategy has to eat well locally while also hitting the national circuit.
All in all, Jones landed a class that addresses every need in the system and, in several cases, meets those needs with serious athletes who will not be outclassed in the SEC. With few exceptions, the Vols took players with skills that project to what they are trying to accomplish, which on National Signing Day, is the best you can do.