Since taking over at Tennessee last season, coach Butch Jones has worked to reestablish the state of Georgia as one of the football program’s top recruiting priorities.
Jones has had some early success, signing seven Georgia products in his first two recruiting classes, including four from Atlanta earlier this month.
Jones did a Q&A with the AJC’s Michael Carvell.
Your top-ranked recruit was Jalen Hurd, a 4-star running back from Hendersonville, Tenn. Hurd was vocal in saying that he didn’t feel like a priority when Derek Dooley was Tennessee’s coach. What do you think turned things around your favor with Hurd? “I think first of all, it’s establishing relationships. It’s establishing trust, but also selling him and the rest of the signing class on our vision. Tennessee is a special place with a great brand. But it’s the people that make a place. So really presenting the plan to (Hurd), and he could feel the energy of the entire coaching staff, and the vision that was behind implementing our plan. Again, it was developing that relationship and trust that occurs over time.”
While we are talking about Hurd, USC issued an apology after a staff member was caught on tape calling him “soft and terrible.” Any thoughts on that? “No. You know, I think our fans did a good enough job with that. But you know what? For us, it’s all about preparing Jalen — and that was really nothing. To be quite frank with you, him and I haven’t even discussed it.”
One of the top 10 players that Georgia has ever produced, NFL Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry, played at Tennessee. And his twin younger brothers, Evan and Elliott Berry from Creekside High School, both signed with Tennessee last month. What positions will they play at Tennessee? I’ve heard numerous position possibilities. “Eric Berry is truly a Vol for Life with everything he has meant to us on the field and off the field. He’s a great character and individual. To be able to add his twin brothers, they are a great, great family. So the great thing about Elliott and Evan is that they can play a multitude of positions. They are extremely athletic. We had them in our camps this summer. One of the priorities is that we needed to improve our team speed. With the Berry twins, we’ve been able to improve our team speed. They have great versatility. They can play a number of different positions. When you’re building a program, and right now we’re not anywhere where we need to be in terms of depth — that really, really is going to be a big benefit for us.”
When the Berry twins committed, they said that Tennessee was their only offer. What did you think about that? My assumption was that some schools stayed away because everybody knew they were “locks” to sign with Tennessee. “They have from Eric and their father – their blood is basically orange. But you never take anything for granted. The thing about the Berry family is that they do their due diligence. I know they were going to let their sons choose wherever they wanted to go to. We treated them as if they had no ties to Tennessee. Again, it got back to really selling our vision and our philosophy within our football program.”
There were few surprises across Georgia this year on signing day, but one of them was Peachtree Ridge High School offensive lineman Orlando Brown Jr. flipping from Tennessee to Oklahoma. Did you see that coming? “Well, I will only comment on the individuals that signed with us. So the great thing about this recruiting class is that most of these individuals had been committed for a very, very long period of time. They started recruiting each other. They are great character young men. They will be great ambassadors for us. The amazing thing within this class is that not many of them took official visits anywhere else. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a year where we signed the number we signed, including midyears, and they were as highly-recruited as they were, but very few took official visits anywhere else.”
The year before on signing day, Alpharetta High School quarterback Joshua Dobbs flipped from Arizona State to Tennessee. Dobbs started four games for you as a true freshman. Is he the clear No. 1 quarterback for next season? “The quarterback competition will be opened up. We have four individuals who will be vying for that starting position. But Josh has done a great job. It’s a lot to expect for a true freshman to come in and start in the SEC. He has got great poise, and he’s mature beyond his years. One of the things he needed to do this offseason was improve his weight. He has been able to do that. I believe he’s up to around 210 pounds now. He has done a great job with that, and I’m excited to see the steps he has taken from the Kentucky game to now moving into spring football.”
Back to your 2014 class: Under a new NCAA rule interpretation this year, recruits who were approved for early enrollment were allowed to sign financial-aid agreements (F.A.A.) that gave colleges basically “unlimited contact” until the recruits signed a national letter of intent (NLI). You might’ve been part of NCAA history with wide receiver Josh Malone of Gallatin, Tenn. He signed F.A.A.’s with Tennessee, UGA, Florida State and Clemson and ended up signing a NLI with the Volunteers. What did you make out of that new type of situation in recruiting? “I think it’s obviously the ability to adapt and adjust to the new rule changes. Our coaching staff did a good job with the new rules and regulations. It was definitely a challenge because there wasn’t any recruiting advantage at all because he had signed the forms with every institution. There were some things I think that really helped us in terms, first and foremost, with just the overall communication process.”
What is your opinion of that new type of recruiting with the F.A.A’s? “I think it allows you to gauge the interest between a student-athlete and your institution, so now when you know that there’s also repercussions behind it if he doesn’t attend your institution. So I think it’s a positive. It allows you to build a relationship with a young man. Obviously I thought it worked out well for us, so I like that.”
Do you think college coaches will vote to change the F.A.A. thing or that it will be around for another year? “I think it will stick for another year.”
Tennessee traditionally recruits well in Georgia. What is your sales pitch to the state’s top 2015 prospects? “We treat Georgia as a home state for us. You look at the proximity from Georgia to the University of Tennessee. This is home territory for us, and I think we’ve proven we’ve had great success with players from the state of Georgia when you look at players like Jamal Lewis, Inky Johnson, Chuck Smith, Deon Grant and I could go on – Eric Berry and Willie Gault. You look at the success now with Ja’Wuan James that he’s having in pursuing his goal to play in the NFL. And Ja’Wuan also has his degree from Tennessee as well. You look at our past history, the proximity, and we have a tremendous amount of respect for the high school coaches in that state and the product that they produce. And they obviously have great players as well.”
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