KNOXVILLE – Christmas has passed, but one of the biggest gifts for coach Butch Jones and Tennessee’s program will be arriving in about a week.
Fourteen early enrollees will begin showing up on campus for the spring semester that officially begins on Jan. 8. It’s an influx of talent that marks the first wave of new players who will be on campus from Jones’ heralded first full recruiting class that is ranked among the best in the nation by multiple recruiting ranking services.
The 14 players aren’t confirmed yet, but it’ll consist of the three junior college players signed on Dec. 18 in addition to prep stars such as running back Jalen Hurd, receiver Josh Malone, tight end Daniel Helm and defensive end Joe Henderson.
"The next area [in the development of the program] is our overall depth and competitiveness across the board,” Jones said at his postseason press conference earlier in the month. “Competitiveness lends itself to improving individually and collectively as a team. We need to generate and create competition across the board.
“You do that through the recruitment process. That's why we are excited to welcome 14 new individuals at mid-year.”
The process of bringing in players a semester early is a growing trend that UT has taken advantage of in recent year, but never to this extent. Jones said he’s never been part of such an enormous haul at this point of the year and it’s perhaps just in time for a team in full rebuilding mode after a 5-7 season and preparing to lose virtually all of its offensive and defensive lines.
There are plenty of positives Jones sees throughout this process. For a 2014 team expected to rely on many newcomers next fall, having players show up early will help prepare them for the rigors of an SEC season.
"Many benefits,” Jones said. “They gain spring football, they actually gain a half of year of eligibility. When August rolls around they understand the standard, the expectations, the style of play. Physically they are able to develop, mentally they are able to develop from a mental toughness standpoint but also understanding the playbook.
“It really helps the learning curve and all that you do mentally and physically, it builds team bonds and chemistry. It builds an overall comfort level. The advantages are endless, it is invaluable."
But enrolling early is not a fail-proof way to ensure a successful college career. Take UT’s group of 2013 early enrollees as an example. The five players brought in at that point have already been hit-or-miss. Receiver Paul Harris recently left the team after making limited contributions in his one year.
Defensive backs Lemond Johnson and Riyahd Jones made limited contributions in their first year, while defensive end Corey Vereen and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin were solid role players who have a lot of upside. The three freshmen who played the most – CB Cameron Sutton, WR Marquez North and QB Joshua Dobbs – all enrolled in the summer. There are few certainties in recruiting.
Asking a senior to miss his final semester of high school to enroll early and be thrown into an SEC-level strength and conditioning program can be a tough task, even for the highest-level of recruits.
"There are challenges with that too now – there are some things we have to understand,” Jones added. “Some of these individuals are 17 years old and going away to college for the first time. Everything is changing for them. Their friends, the expectations, the work volume of being in a collegiate setting with academics with the offseason strength and conditioning.
"We are going to have to rely on our older players to nurture them so to speak and bring them along. All 14 individuals are high character, competitive and looking forward to it."