KNOXVILLE – Take a moment to rewind to this time last year. After weeks of searching for a coach to replace the ousted Derek Dooley, the Vols had suffered multiple public rejections during their scrutinized hunt.
Rumors and reports of interest in former NFL coach Jon Gruden (“Grumors” as they became known) never materialized. Louisville coach Charlie Strong and Oklahoma State head man Mike Gundy both flirted with the idea of coming to Knoxville, but both ultimately stayed in place and were rewarded with a raise and contract extension.
UT kept moving down the list. Fans grew frustrated. Names like Miami’s Al Golden, North Carolina’s Larry Fedora and Cincinnati’s Butch Jones began to surface as the next wave of candidates.
By Dec. 6 of last year, the focus narrowed in on Jones, a lesser-known name who was perhaps most recognized for following current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati. By that evening, negotiations began. In the early-morning hours of Dec. 7, he was Tennessee’s football coach.
Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of Jones’ arrival in Knoxville. The Vols just wrapped up another 5-7 campaign on the field – matching the previous two disappointing seasons. We’ll continue to dissect UT’s on-field status over the coming weeks now that the season is over.
But Jones is progressing a program that has fallen to new lows in recent years. A few ways Tennessee, as a program, has progressed in Year 1 of the Butch Jones era:
Recruiting: This is the obvious one. Jones had less than two months to scramble to salvage the 2013 class. The 22-man class was about all UT could’ve expected under the circumstances.
Despite finishing second for a few potentially key additions, Jones held on to other important members of the class such as DL Jason Carr, QB Riley Ferguson, CB Cameron Sutton, DL Corey Vereen and DB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, while adding potential impact players such as QB Joshua Dobbs and WR Marquez North around signing day.
He vowed to not compromise on quality for quantity in that class – leaving the door open to sign a bigger class in 2014.
And his patience appears to be paying off for UT. Jones has compiled a class that looks to be headed for a top-5 finish nationally. Fourteen players are scheduled to enroll in January, giving UT much-needed reinforcements for winter workouts and spring practice.
Potential impact players such as RB Jalen Hurd and WR Josh Malone join five currently-committed junior college prospects as players who could be instant upgrades in 2014. Throw in an array of other impressive prep prospects such as TE Daniel Helm, LB Dillon Bates, DB Todd Kelly, DB Rashaan Gaulden, DL Derek Barnett, LB Kevin Mouhon and DB Evan Berry and UT’s talent level for the future is looking significantly better.
Jones doesn’t seem to be slowing down for 2015, either. Six commitments are already on board for that class with a few already garnering four-star ratings by some recruiting services.
Academics: This has been perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Jones’ year at Tennessee. The last available data this summer showed the team posting a collective 2.8 GPA in the spring semester, the highest recorded since UT started keeping team-by-team data in 2013.
More importantly, Jones has navigated UT out of Academic Progress Rate (APR) danger for the time being. The Vols were facing the real possibility of NCAA sanctions if they didn’t raise their APR. Jones recently reported a perfect score of 1,000 for the spring, keeping UT clear of any potential danger.
Players and others around the program have routinely commented about the change in academic structure under Jones. Players are being held accountable at a different level. Classes are regularly checked, professors are routinely contacted for progress reports and players understand that they must go to and pass classes to keep playing for Jones.
Off-the-field issues: They’ve virtually disappeared under Jones. Recently a laughingstock of the NCAA for its many off-the-field issues, there have been zero reported arrests and no new NCAA issues under the new staff at UT.
The Maurice Couch incident this season was all based on accusations of actions that occurred prior to Jones’ arrival at UT.
General public relations/UT relations: Jones has been part football coach, part recruiter and part PR genius over the last year. He’s crossed the state in a politician-like way garnering support for the program. He’s rarely turned down interviews, appearances or any other opportunity to promote UT.
He’s welcomed former players back to the program after some felt alienated by previous staffs. Former players such as Arian Foster and Tony Robinson made appearances in Knoxville after staying away for years. Former player/coach Phillip Fulmer has been a visible supporter of Jones as well. Jones has hosted events for staff, alumni, former players and students, all with the idea of unifying the program and the school.
Even with the team struggling at times on the field, attendance was up 6.2 percent at Neyland Stadium from 2012 and the Vols averaged over 2,000 more students per game this season as compared to last year.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga