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March 11, 2013
Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
Butch Jones is ready to prove he was worth the wait.
Jones took over as the head coach at Tennessee on Dec. 7 after an 18-day search in which numerous coaches were linked to the position.
His predecessor, Derek Dooley, was fired on Nov. 18 after three seasons and a 15-21 record.
With a strong close to the Class of 2013 and a recently completed coaching staff -- hiring Robert Gillespie from West Virginia to replace Jay Graham -- his attention has turned to rebuilding a program that has fallen from its perch.
"We signed 21 kids that we are very proud of in that last class," Jones said. "But we have already turned that page and are onto the next group.
"This is the most competitive conference in college football and that is all encompassing. It is competitive on the field because it is competitive in recruiting and we are ready to go after the best kids we can and build around the players that we have here right now."
The players that are still on campus could make for a program in flux.
Quite simply, the best ones are gone.
Quarterback Tyler Bray was called the potential steal of the NFL Draft by Bucky Brooks of NFL.com and combined with the losses of certain first-round pick Cordarelle Patterson and second-day pick Justin Hunter, there will be major holes in the offense.
Adding those early losses to the graduation of Zach Rogers and Mychal Rivera, Jones will be looking for an entirely new offense with the exception of running back Marlin Lane.
That group combined for 3,222 yards and 29 touchdowns last season.
Jones might have found some answers with a pair of four-stars in Marquez North and Paul Harris, but relying on freshmen in the SEC could be a suspect plan -- and entering the spring practice season without a quarterback is worrisome for any program.
Defensively, the unit will switch back to the 4-3 after a disaster of a season in the 3-4 under Sal Sunseri. The team lost only two players to graduation and does not figure to have players leave for the NFL so that could be a strength -- if the secondary isn't victimized like it was in 2012.
Part of the reason for optimism on the field and in recruiting from Jones is based on the staff he has assembled.
The names are familiar to SEC fans. Defensive coordinator John Jancek was at Georgia for five seasons, defensive backs coach Willie Martinez was at Auburn and Georgia and linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen spent the past four seasons at Auburn.
The hires were far from accidental.
"I put together a staff of coaches that I was personally very familiar with as well as men with ties into the South," Jones said. "We needed guys that had existing relationships in places we want to recruit and we needed guys that we familiar with what the SEC was all about.
"I have tremendous respect for all the coaches in this conference, but we are ready to compete against everyone in all aspects. The velocity and intensity at which we will attack recruiting will be noticed."
It was certainly noted in this first class, as nearly all of the players Jones landed in his two months on the job were either recruiting wins or players he flipped from other schools.
North and defensive end Jaylen Miller were signing day victories. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs chose to sign with the program on national signing day after being committed to Arizona State for nearly a year. Defensive end Malik Brown de-committed from Syracuse and chose Tennessee. Running back Jabo Lee flipped from East Carolina two days before signing day. Receiver Ryan Jenkins had been a South Carolina commit who coaches flipped. Lemond Johnson changed course and left the Auburn commit list for the Vols as well. Offensive lineman Dylan Wiesman and tight end A.J. Branisel followed Jones from Cincinnati.
With a fresh slate, the Vols this year will be just as aggressive.
There are six players from the state of Tennessee inside the first release of the Rivals250, so battling for that in-state talent will be a priority. Jones appears to have already won a couple of those battles.
Defensive back Todd Kelly, the No. 59 prospect and a local product from Knoxville (Tenn.) Webb School whose father played at the school, committed on Sunday. Vic Wharton, the No. 229 player in the Rivals250 from Nashville (Tenn.) Independence, committed to the Vols in December.
The rest of group is led by running back Jalen Hurd of Hendersonville (Tenn.) Beech at the No. 15 position in the Rivals100. Alex Bars of Nashville (Tenn.) Montgomery Bell Academy is No. 55 and on the offensive line.
Starting with the best and the brightest is what Jones will target.
"We are not rebuilding," Jones said. "That is something that doesn't happen here. We believe in our vision and we know what we are going to be. This is the University of Tennessee and we can be extremely selective in the individuals we recruit.
"We will go after kids that are on successful high school program -- players that know what it takes to win -- and we will go after players that are strong academically and we will look for players of character.
"There are things that we look for and most all of them have ties to leadership," Jones said. "In today's society there are too many people who want things to be easy but here we want individuals who are ready to work for success."
Jones believes that his message will resonate with players. He hopes that the fans are ready to for the ride.
"I understand the unrest," Jones said. "There needs to be consistency and stability and I think we can bring that. It is only a matter of time but we know that when we walk into a young man's house there is nothing that he can want that Tennessee can't provide.
"Tennessee is a brand and one that I look forward to representing and improving."