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Mind of Mike: Where and how the Butch Jones era went wrong

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Butch Jones
AP

HOW AND WHY: Why Butch Jones failed at Tennessee

RECRUITING: Recruits react | Five bad busts | Five bad misses | Highs and lows

HOT BOARD: Realistic guide to Vols coaching candidates

The Butch Jones era is reportedly over at Tennessee, an era that started with such positivity in recruiting and ended in another mismatch loss in the SEC. Where did it all go wrong in Knoxville? Here’s a look back at what was a positive track record in the recruiting department that did not translate into enough wins.

Jones finished out the 2013 class after he was hired, which finished No. 21 in the country. The highest ranked prospect in that group was Marquez North, who finished No. 37 nationally and was the No. 2 wide receiver in the country. Some of these players were the ones Jones infamously referred to as winning the “championship of life” after initially promising big things upon his arrival in December of 2012. More on Jones cringe-worthy quotes below, but the man didn’t help himself at all with his sound bites.

Jones' first full class in 2014 was the best class the Vols had since 2007 when they finished No. 3 overall under Philip Fulmer. That 2014 class was ranked No. 5 in the nation led by many talented in-state prospects like Jalen Hurd, Josh Malone, Todd Kelly, Vic Wharton, Rashaan Gaulen and the best of them all, Derek Barnett. Jones also landed top prospects from Florida, California, Illinois, DC, Kansas, Texas, Ohio and other states as well as legacy Dillon Bates. This was the class that was supposed to propel Tennessee to the SEC title, there was that much hype around it.

Recruiting was clearly never the issue, at least in the beginning, for Jones as he followed 2014 with the No. 5 class again in 2015, highlighted by late recruiting steals of players like Drew Richmond and Kyle Phillips, two huge in-state grabs, and key pickups like Alvin Kamara, Shy Tuttle, Preston Williams, Jack Jones and others. And again, the reach was strong as Jones pulled in players from California, Georgia, North Carolina. Texas, Virginia, Indiana, Oklahoma and other states. The 2014 and 2015 classes were the best back-to-back recruiting finishes for the Vols in Rivals.com history.

The Jones Era at Tennessee
Year Recruiting Rank W-L record Final AP rank

2013

21

5-7

unranked

2014

5

7-6

unranked

2015

5

9-4

22

2016

15

9-4

22

2017

15

4-6

n/a


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VOLQUEST: Tennessee fires Butch Jones | Reviewing the Vols' loss to Missouri

The 2016 class finished No. 15, a nice cap to the back-to-back top 5 classes with players like Jonathan Kongbo, Jarrett Guarantano, Nigel Warrior, Marquez Callaway and others. A tremendous three-year stretch was expected to lead to an SEC East title and perhaps a run at Alabama, but it clearly didn’t happen.

Taking a break from recruiting a bit, the on field results were slow and frustrating for Vols fans. A 5-7 season in 2013 was somewhat expected after inheriting such a mess from Derek Dooley who went 15-21 in his three seasons as the Vols head coach from 2010-2012. Jones followed up with a 7-6 season in 2014 and a bowl game, which led to higher expectations in 2015. Many felt Tennessee was the dark horse to win the SEC East in 2015, but early losses to Florida, Arkansas and Alabama pretty much ended that talk. A double overtime loss to Oklahoma and staying close with Alabama in a 19-14 loss gave fans hope as did a six-game winning streak to end the season culminating in a 45-6 drubbing of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. Entering the 2016 season, following a 9-4 year, Tennessee was the favorite to win the SEC East.

Things began to unravel in 2016 as the Vols again lost key SEC games to Texas A&M, Alabama (49-10) and South Carolina (after a bye week) which again ruined their chances of winning the division and the conference. And the win over Georgia was on a Hail Mary, so there’s that. Once again, Jones led his team to nine wins and a win over a Big Ten program in the Music City Bowl, but the loss to Vanderbilt to end the regular season lost him some key supporters as Tennessee was set to head to the Sugar Bowl for the first time since 1990. The feeling was that Vanderbilt wanted it more and the Vols team quit in the second half – never a good sign. With some of the elite talent in the 2014 class like Barnett, Malone and others leaving for the NFL and with Hurd, perhaps the most hyped recruit of the Jones era, quitting the team mid-season, the 2016 campaign was a sour pill for fans and boosters to swallow despite another 9-4 record.

Recruiting took a hit around the same time as the 2017 class still finished No. 15 but key in state losses in recruiting to Clemson and LSU for prospects like Tee Higgins (Clemson), Jacoby Stevens and Jacob Phillips (LSU) as well as the flip of five-star quarterback Hunter Johnson from the Vols to Clemson hurt Tennessee’s national appeal. The 2017 class, despite a top 15 finish, was considered a big come down from Jones’ first three classes and was the first full class he compiled without a five-star. There was some talent of course, especially Trey Smith, Maleik Gray and Ty Chandler, but there were far more three-stars than expected.

Heading into the 2017 season, Jones was considered on a very warm seat, but most expected seven or eight wins and for him to survive another year. However, the way the team lost to Florida on a last second pass, the way the team played against UMass, a winless team, and the drubbing by Georgia set the wheels in motion. The Vols' brain trust probably should have cut ties after the touchdown-less loss to South Carolina as recruits began to decommit (Lyn-J Dixon) and look around (led by five-star commit Cade Mays) but it became impossible not to make a move as the SEC losses piled up.

Player development by Jones and his staff has been under serious scrutiny. In his four full recruiting classes from 2014-17, Jones lured seven five-star prospects to Knoxville and an argument could be made than none of them lived up to that lofty status. An argument could be made for Kamara who, inexplicably, didn’t get enough touches in his time at Tennessee and ended up as a third round draft choice, but players like Hurd, Malone, Richmond, McKenzie, Phillips and Kongbo have all underachieved. Yes, credit must be given for players like Barnett and Cameron Sutton and a few others who played well above their ranking, but by and large the highest ranked prospects Jones recruited to Knoxville fell far under expectations. That could be the biggest problem of his tenure.

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Butch Jones had some difficult moments with the media.
AP

Let’s talk a bit about some of the ridiculous comments Jones has made over the years. I’ve already referenced the “championship of life” comment and he once mentioned he wants recruits with “five-star hearts” rather than the real ratings prospects get and more recently he came up with “leadership reps” which are practice reps players can take by just watching others take physical reps as they learn how to be leaders – or something like that. His constant flow of ridiculous sayings certainly didn’t help his cause. Oh and let’s not forget building the program back up “brick by brick” which wasn’t so bad except for the fact that it has been used by many in the media against him as Tennessee flounders in developing such “bricks.”

So what happens to the 2018 recruiting class? The Vols class is currently ranked No. 11 in the nation with 19 commitments and a 3.42 average star rating. The answer to that is – no one knows. Recruits will obviously look around and until a replacement is found, no one knows how many decommitments will occur. A big-name hire will be needed to finish in the top 10 this recruiting cycle but it’s more important for the Vols to find the right game coach and program builder who can develop players rather than put up flashy recruiting numbers.

So who’s next? The Jon Gruden rumors have already started but we have to assume those are ridiculous as usual. But watch out for guys like Scott Frost at UCF, a hot name lately, or Jeff Brohm at Purdue, another newer head coach having success. I think Tennessee will go after an established name like Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech or Dan Mullen at Mississippi State than take a chance on a rising assistant like Brent Venables (Clemson) or Tee Martin (USC) who haven’t run a program yet. Chip Kelly is intriguing as well. Whoever it is, it’s important that Tennessee get one of their top choices and find a coach who can not only recruit and develop players but is also good with a gameplan and is an excellent in game coach.

Finally, what programs could benefit from The Vols firing Jones, aside from the Vols themselves? Ole Miss will try to make a run back into the state despite NCAA issues and a coaching search of their own while Alabama and others in the SEC will take a run at the big names committed on the list. Vanderbilt could be helped as well, especially if they can win the in-state game again this season as they did in 2016. When there is blood in the water in SEC country, the sharks will start circling so many different teams could benefit depending on how long the search goes and who the next hire is.

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