If the fax machine in Butch Jones‘ office was a paid employee, it would be getting overtime when the paychecks are handed out this week. In an conference-leading haul of 31 signees, the Tennessee Volunteers will certainly have a new look when the 2014 season begins. Many recruiting publications rank this class in the top five in the country and the Tennessee faithful hope this ranking is not just a number. The Volunteers hope to rebound from a 5-7 2013 season that saw four losses by 28 points or more, a too-close-for-comfort win at home over the South Alabama Jaguars, and a loss at home to their instate rival, the Vanderbilt Commodores.
In fact, Tennessee has struggled mightily in recent years. Jones is the fourth head coach since 2007. Who could forget the Lane Kiffin debacle? Or Derek Dooley‘s troubled tenure on the sideline in Neyland Stadium? Additionally, the Volunteers have finished at .500 or below in conference play every year since 2008 and have not played in a bowl game in three years. Why would so many talented players sign with Tennessee? Early playing time is the answer.
There are 19 starters from 2013 squad that are gone, including the entire offensive and defensive line, the linebacking corps and running back Rajion Neal. With unproven backups and a subpar 2013 season in the rearview mirror, competition for starting positions will be fierce this summer. Running back Jalen Hurd and wide receiver Josh Malone headline a strong offensive group that includes three linemen. Two of these linemen are 6-foot-6, 295 pound Coleman Thomas and 6-foot-8, 300 pound Dontavius Blair, large road graders needed to combat the talented defensive lines in the SEC.
Hurd is a large running back (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) who runs between the tackles and uses his size to punish smaller defenders. Fellow signee and running back Derrell Scott (5-foot-10, 181 pounds) brings a quickness that could be the “Lightning” to Hurd’s “Thunder.” Malone is a tall receiver (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) who was regarded by many publications as the top player in the state of Tennessee and the prize of this signing class. The Volunteer coaching staff held off the Georgia Bulldogs, the Florida State Seminoles and the Clemson Tigers for his signature. Malone looks to factor into the Tennessee offense immediately with his sure hands and game-breaking speed.
The defensive line was bolstered by signing six linemen, including Michael Sawyers, Derek Barnett and Dewayne Hendrix. All three had outstanding senior seasons and have the size and quickness to see the field in 2014. Charles Mosley (6-foot-5, 358 pounds) was signed as an offensive guard, but all signs point to a move across the line of scrimmage. Joe Henderson is a speedy defensive end (6-foot-4, 222 pounds) that probably needs a year to gain weight to withstand the giant offensive tackles he will be facing in the SEC.
Also included in this haul was four linebackers and seven defensive backs. Cortez McDowell, Rashaan Gaulden and Todd Kelly are three defensive backs that stand over 6-feet tall and possess the ability to help against the running game. Tennessee also kept it in the family with three members of their defensive class. The Vols signed highly rated linebacker Dillon Bates, the son of former Tennessee great Bill Bates. Elliot Berry and Evan Berry, twin brothers to former Vol and current pro Eric Berry. The Berry brothers and Bates are playing the same positions as their predecessors, so the comparisons will be coming early and often for these young Vols.
Early playing time is a key selling point in recruiting for every program in the SEC. Talented players see the opportunity to contribute early for a storied program such as Tennessee and jump at the chance to showcase their talents on the national stage immediately. Judging by the amount of talent arriving in Knoxville for the 2014 season, that chance may be coming soon for many of these true freshmen. Maybe this class can restore the program among the elite in college football and erase the memories of painful seasons past.