KNOXVILLE – A year after showing up to the National Signing Day press conference looking exhausted and somewhat dejected, there was a different vibe from Tennessee’s coaches as they showed up for the 2014 version of the same press conference.
Who could blame them for wanting to express some of their excitement?
It wasn’t that they worked any less than last year, but 2014 had the results to back them up. After a rushed 2013 class ended up ranked in the 20s nationally by most recruiting services, coach Butch Jones and his staff landed a class lauded as one of the best in the nation – ranked in the top five by many – in 2014.
In total, 20 prospects ranked as a four-star or higher by at least one recruiting service and two five-stars signed in UT’s 32-man class.
“I think that everybody understands that it’s only a matter of time before Tennessee football gets back,” said recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni.
And this class is a huge step in that direction. Tennessee bottled some of its late 1990s/early 2000s recruiting prowess and excelled on the trail, regularly taking on and beating programs that have been far more successful recently.
Jones, for all of his excitement and enthusiasm, did take a moment during his 1,500-word opening statement to the media on Thursday afternoon to remind that this is just a step, not a finished process.
“I want to guard against all of the expectations that are going to come with this recruiting class,” said UT’s second-year head coach. “We have to still remember that these are 17-18 year old individuals. It is like raising your children. Everything is about their personal growth and development.
“Each individual will mature differently. We are going to be an extremely young football team this year, but I am excited because I think we will be youthful, but very skilled and very talented. I just think it is very unfair to put a lot on the shoulders of this recruiting class, as we know this class will probably be judged 2-3 years down the line.”
That’s Jones’ way of balancing Tennessee’s current reality of being a lower-level SEC team with lower-level SEC talent mixed with the infusion of young talent that is expected to come from this class. Classes like this can get UT closer to where it used to be, but even this highly-regarded class of 32 can’t make up for four straight losing seasons.
That makes the job that the Vols did in 2014 all the more impressive, however. Sixteen- and 17-year old prospects from this cycle aren’t even old enough to remember Tennessee’s 1998 national title or much of the success that surrounded that era. Many of their recent memories involve mainly losses for the Vols in a recent period that has been marked with more failure and change than success on the field.
Put that up against an SEC school that is finishing in the top-10 regularly or has a national title in the last few seasons and that’s a tough sell to make.
“It's the nature of our conference, and that's why it's the most competitive conference in the country,” Jones said. “I don't think what people really understand within the SEC, it's the weekly grind; there are no off weeks in our conference. In everything you do, you compete. Whether it's on the field, off the field in recruiting, it's the best of the best.”
"Four or five years of bad football is not going to be fixed in eight months,” added Azzanni. “Quite frankly, if another player went somewhere else because they had 10 wins and we didn’t, then they probably weren’t the kind of player we wanted anyways.”
UT’s rebuilding job is far from over at this point. Next year’s class might not have the quantity of 2014, but the Vols need more help in this multi-year process. They’ll need to find a quarterback, continue to rebuild both lines and add speed all over and they’ll likely have to do it in the face of a season that won’t be as successful on the field as many of the rivals they’re recruiting against.
The process never stops.
“We probably talked to 100 (class of) 2015 prospects today,” Azzanni said.
At least they got to do it with more of a smile on their face this year. Maybe someday they’ll get a chance to stop and celebrate.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga