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Zach Azzanni, one of Tennessee’s best recruiters, is leaving for the Chicago Bears

The Vols may take a step back on the recruiting trail, but can they afford to?

NCAA Football: Music City Bowl-Tennessee vs Nebraska Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when Butch Jones burst onto the scene and signed those two top-10 recruiting classes back-to-back, in 2014 and 2015? Those times were fun. But as the Vols have yet to win the SEC East under Jones, and his message is growing a bit stale because of it. Tennessee has already slid back down to earth recruiting-wise.

Then this happened.

Azzanni arrived in Knoxville with Jones in 2013, and he started building the impressive classes “brick by brick,” as the mantra goes. Those bricks seemed pretty strong too. Von Pearson, Marquez North, Preston Williams, Kendrell Scurry, and Josh Malone are all WRs in the top 100 nationally whom Azzanni helped bring to Knoxville. But that level of talent is walking through the doors at Tennessee at a slower pace.

Azzanni’s departure is a subplot in Tennessee’s broader recruiting backslide.

Tennessee could use a few ace recruiters, primarily because the Vols are sliding the wrong direction if they hope to compete for national titles.

To win a national championship in the post-BCS era, you need a roster that has 50 percent or more four- and five-star talent. The Jones era started really well, and his first two full-cycle recruiting classes (in 2014 and 2015) had 16 blue-chips each. And to Jones’ credit, there was a hefty recruiting hole to dig out of, left by his predecessor, Derek Dooley. That was compounded by the Lane Kiffin fiasco, too:

In Dooley’s only two full classes (2011 and 2012, as his 2010 class was comprised mostly of Kiffin recruits), he signed 32 players, 17 of whom were four- or five-stars. That’s a good percentage, but 32 signees over two years is pretty low. The major problem was the extreme attrition from having three coaches in five years. That also affects player development, as schemes and techniques keep changing.

His last two, however, have had 10 and five blue-chips, respectively. The Vols were very close to having a title-worthy roster from a recruiting standpoint with a .44 ratio before the 2016 season. But with the 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes beginning to cycle out of the program, they’re not stocking the roster with elite reinforcements.

Tennessee now sits in danger of falling into the SEC East’s second recruiting tier.

Florida (when the Gators are right, and they’re at least trending back in that direction) and Georgia occupy the SEC East’s top recruiting tier fairly permanently. The Dawgs just put a capper on an elite signing class that dwarfs the rest of the SEC East.

UGA blue-chips vs. the SEC East

Class Year 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012
Class Year 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012
Georgia 4/5-stars 20 13 14 13 15 10
Ratio of UGA blue chips vs East 1.3 2.4 2.8 3.5 2.1 3.8
Rest of SEC East Combined 26 31 39 46 32 38
Florida 11 9 5 9 15 15
Tennessee 5 10 16 16 4 8
South Carolina 6 6 10 10 4 9
Kentucky 4 3 2 6 3 1
Vanderbilt 0 2 3 2 4 1
Missouri 0 1 3 3 2 4

Tennessee has been hanging out there recently, but its residency isn’t a lock moving forward. If the Vols aren’t going to continue at the elite pace they set early in Jones’ tenure, they’re going to have to settle for keeping up with a new Jones.

And that’s South Carolina:

Tennessee is an interesting benchmark for South Carolina to shoot for on the division’s second recruiting tier. The Vols shocked us all with two top-10 recruiting classes in Butch Jones’ first two full cycles. But now they’ve come back down to earth with the No. 14 class in 2016 and No. 17 class in 2017. South Carolina ranked No. 21 in 2016 and No. 25 in 2017. If the Vols are sliding, the Gamecocks could catch them.

The Gamecocks actually signed more four-stars in this recruiting cycle than Tennessee did, but the Vols had three more commitments and landed five-star tackle Trey Smith, boosting their class just a touch above South Carolina’s No. 21 class. The Gamecocks had an player star rating of 87.02, while the Vols edged them out at 87.14, according to the 247Sports Composite. That’s a negligible difference.

That’s where the Vols are now, and it means the next class is crucial.

You win titles with talented depth, and at one point, we thought the Vols had that. Now we’re not so sure which way this roster’s going to end up going, and that means the 2018 recruiting class is a big deal. It’s early in the cycle, but at least at this point, the Vols have a verbal from five-star local tackle Cade Mays, banked back in 2015.

If Mays is one of many crown jewels in the 2018 and following classes, Tennessee’s roster situation will make the Vols competitive again. If not, there’s trouble coming.