By Alex Norman
All coaches say that they are happy with their recruiting classes on National Signing Day. Heck, Derek Dooley put a rose on that Class of 2012 that didn’t have one offensive lineman in the bunch. Not one!
But Tennessee coach Butch Jones actually does have good reason for positivity. Jones and the Vols coaching staff closed with a flurry, getting 4 star athlete Tyler Byrd, 5 star safety Nigel Warrior, 4 star receiver Latrell Williams and 5 star defensive lineman Jonathan Kongbo to round out Tennessee’s Class of 2016.
“This is a culmination of one to two to three years of hard work by a lot of individuals involved in this process,” said Jones. “It is really about relationships. We are in a relationship business. It is earning that trust over time. Our coaches did a great job with that.”
When the dust settles, Tennessee is likely to finish with a national ranking around 15 for this class. And while the class won’t match the previous two classes in terms of stature, they have continued to build depth with mostly 4 and 5 star athletes across the board. It’s a group of 23, including a couple of walk-ons.
“We had some very specific needs in our program this year,” said Jones. “We thought we needed to bring in as much speed and athleticism as we could, bring in players that can play multiple positions and give us flexibility whether it’s on the offensive side of the ball, defensive side of the ball or special teams. You can never have enough team speed as we have all come to know in this conference. That lends itself to playing well in terms of your special teams.”
In the past, part of the recruiting pitch was the opportunity to play right away. Look no further than what defensive end Derek Barnett and running back Jalen Hurd were able to accomplish during their freshman and sophomore seasons. But even with the absurd amount of returning talent on the roster, Jones hasn’t given up that part of the discussion with recruits.
“If you sit in a living room of a young man and you promise him that he’s going to start, or you promise him playing time right away, I think that’s unfair to that individual because of the growth and development that it takes,” said Jones. “You never know. Each young man develops differently at their own pace, but what we still can promise is the opportunity to play early. I think we’ve proven that within our football program. Everyone’s always going to have that opportunity for playing time early.”
Overall it was a down year for high school football seniors in the state of Tennessee, but Jones did secure 4 star linebacker Daniel Bituli, 4 star offensive lineman Ryan Jones and 3 star tight end Austin Pope (from nearby Christian Academy of Knoxville) from the Volunteer state. Succeeding outside the borders was imperative this year, as always, with players like Warrior and 4 star athlete Marquez Callaway from Georgia, plus Byrd and 4 star receiver Brandon Johnson from Florida choosing the Vols.
“Make no mistake about it, it all stems with home. It’s a pride of who we are,” said Jones “I think the pride of this state, it means so much for an instate individual to represent The University of Tennessee more than any other school in the country and the passion behind our fan base, but also we have other states that we view as home territory. So to be able to go in those other states and really assert ourselves was very big for our program and moving forward.”
It’s hard to say that a 4 star quarterback recruit is the forgotten man in a recruiting class, but that’s kind of the case with Jarrett Guarantano. The Bergen Catholic HS (NJ) standout has been committed to Tennessee since last April and never wavered in that pledge, so most of the more recent attention has gone elsewhere. But he is likely the most important member of this class and the quarterback of the future for the Vols.
“Getting a quarterback to commit early was very big for us. You talk about the quarterback position, and one of the intangible traits that you look for are the leadership qualities,” said Jones. “Jarrett Guarantano has those leadership qualities, and he was able to build relationships with his future teammates, with his peers. That helped, but also the commitment level. Here’s a young man that could’ve went anywhere in the country, and had everyone pulling on him, even the last week in recruiting. He didn’t take one other call.”
The hype machine will be churning at full speed for the next 7 months. We’ll see if the Class of 2016 can make a difference as the Vols try to win the SEC East for the first time in 9 years.