Report Card: Grading the five-stars Butch Jones signed at Tennessee
During his time as head coach at Tennessee, Butch Jones had his share of big victories on the recruiting trail, landing seven five-stars from 2014-16. In the wake of his dismissal Sunday, it’s a good time to re-visit those elite prospects and see how they panned out on Rocky Top. Rivals.com National Recruiting Director Mike Farrell will weigh in on each prospect and assign a letter grade for their time with the Vols.
As a recruit: An in-state star with offers from Alabama and Ohio State, Hurd became an immediate priority for Jones when he arrived in Knoxville. After taking several visits, Hurd ended his recruitment early, committing to the Vols during the spring of his junior year.
As a Volunteer: Tennessee was one of the few major programs to guarantee Hurd the chance to play running back and he quickly found himself as a major contributor during his freshman season, rushing for 899 yards and five touchdowns while starting nine games. He found more success in 2015, having one of the rushing seasons in school history and finishing the year with 1,285 yards. But things became undone during his junior year in 2016, Hurd was splitting time with fellow five-star Alvin Kamara and after the Vols loss to South Carolina he abruptly left the team and announced his intentions to transfer. Despite playing just two and a half seasons in Knoxville, Hurd finished ranked sixth all-time in Tennessee history with 2,635 rushing yards. Hurd transferred to Baylor, where he sat out this season and will have one year of eligibility left in 2018.
The grade: C
Farrell’s take: Hurd was supposed to be the answer as an every-down superstar for the Vols and while he had some production, he never seemed to be the guy they could rely on for the big play. And the way his career ended at Tennessee leads to a lower grade. By numbers alone he would be at least in the B range, but it was clear that Kamara was the better option in the end and watching Kamara’s burst made Hurd looked even more plodding and slow.
As a recruit: After making a name for himself on the camp circuit, Malone collected offers from programs nationwide, eventually narrowing his focus to Georgia, Ohio State, Florida State, Clemson and Tennessee. After a late push from the Vols that included Jones using a police escort to make an in-home visit, Malone announced his intentions to stay close to home and play for the Vols.
As a Volunteer: Malone took his time to break out in Knoxville, struggling through injuries his freshman season but still managing to catch 23 passes. Malone continued to get better every year of his career, finishing with 50 catches for 972 yards during his junior season in 2016. Malone elected to enter the NFL Draft following his breakout year and he was selected in the fourth round by the Cincinnati Bengals. Malone finished his Tennessee career ranked No. 11 all-time in touchdown catches and No. 17 all-time in receiving yards.
The grade: B-
Farrell’s take: Malone could have been much more productive had he stayed healthy and had the offense been more passing-oriented with a more accurate quarterback. But the five-star never seemed to get quicker or develop those home run skills we expected. That being said, he had a solid career, he just undershot our mark when it comes to expectations.
As a recruit: A four-star prospect out of high school, Kamara signed with Alabama but spent one with the Tide and redshirted. After transferring to Hutchinson Community College for one season, Kamara was ranked a five-star and signed with Tennessee in 2015.
As a Volunteer: Despite the presence of Hurd on the roster, Kamara came to Knoxville and found his way as a multi-faceted weapon. In 2015 he scored 10 touchdowns while accumulating 989 yards from scrimmage and he did more of the same in 2016, scoring 13 touchdowns and finishing with 988 yards from scrimmage. Kamara elected to leave school early to enter the draft and he was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the third-round earlier this year.
The grade: A
Farrell’s take: I loved Kamara as an option in the Tennessee offense and it was clear to me he was a difference-maker. I was puzzled as to why he wasn’t the main option and Hurd kept getting the bulk of the carries at times when it appeared to me that Kamara made defenses adjust much more often with his burst and pass-catching skill.
As a recruit: Richmond burst onto the scene following his sophomore season and had suitors from coast-to-coast, eventually committing to Ole Miss over Tennessee and Ohio State early in his senior year. But as the fall moved along both the Buckeyes and the Vols turned up the heat. By the time Jan. 2015 rolled around, Richmond was wavering and rumors were flying about whether he would end up in Oxford or Knoxville. He ended up staying in-state and signing with Tennessee, one of the biggest recruiting victories during the Butch Jones tenure.
As a Volunteer: Despite his five-star status, Richmond redshirted as a freshman in 2015 while he worked to add strength to his 6-foot-5 frame. He entered 2016 as the starter at left tackle and while he showed promise at times, he struggled with confidence early in the year. But as the season moved along, Richmond continued to show improvement and by the time the Vols beat Nebraska in the Music City Bowl, he had established himself as a major piece for the team going forward. In 2017 he started each of the team’s first eight games at left tackle before being sidelined with an injury.
The grade: C
Farrell’s take: Richmond never developed into the star we expected and he never improved his footwork and athleticism as projected. This was a kid who had it all -- size, feet, aggression, a road-grading run blocking style – but never seemed to get better in college than what we saw in high school. I had expected him to be a franchise left tackle and I think the word “serviceable” is about the best description.
As a recruit: The son of former Vols legend Reggie McKenzie, Tennessee emerged as the early favorite for the younger McKenzie. After collecting his fair share of offers, McKenzie wasted no time committing to the Vols during the summer prior to his senior season.
As a Volunteer: Despite missing his entire senior year of high school due to transfer rules, McKenzie showed no ill effects when he arrived in Knoxville, appearing in all 13 games and finishing the year with 24 tackles. But his progress was slowed in 2016, as he appeared in seven games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury and finished the year with just 12 stops. Once again healthy in 2017, McKenzie has had a productive junior season, recording 33 total tackles through 10 games. However, Tennessee’s run defense is among the worst in the SEC and while McKenzie has decent numbers, he’s not had the type of breakout year that Vols fans had hoped for coming into the season.
The grade: C
Farrell’s take: I expected so much more from McKenzie, a massive kid who had the lightest feet I’ve seen on a 350-pounder in some time. I pictured a guy who would stuff the run but also drop a few pounds and be a gap-shooting pass rusher as well. While he has shown flashes of brilliance, his career has been a disappointment based on where he was ranked.
As a recruit: Phillips had quite a lot of intrigue in his recruitment, with several high-profile programs taking the lead at different points during his recruitment. Eventually he settled on Tennessee, Ole Miss and LSU and after nearly committing to both the Rebels and the Tigers, a late visit and a strong push helped Tennessee nab his commitment.
As a Volunteer: Phillips has seen his share of struggles while at Tennessee, mainly because of a shoulder injury that has hampered him at various times during his career. The injury limited him to just six games his true freshman year and while he was mostly healthy in 2016, he was yo-yoed between defense end and defensive tackle, limiting his effectiveness and he played in 11 games and failed to record a sack. Phillips moved back to defensive end for the 2017 and had his best year by far, recording 31 tackles and two sacks through his first 10 games, more than doubling his previous career totals.
The grade: D
Farrell’s take: This has been a massive disappointment as Phillips has battled injuries, playing out of position and many other things. However, even when he’s been put in a position to succeed, his productivity has been below average. I was expected to see a 10-sack pass rushing monster who would get faster and bigger in college and instead we’ve seen just another guy out there.
As a recruit: A native of the Congo who later moved to Canada, Kongbo actually signed with Wyoming as a member of the class of 2014. After redshirting his first season with the Cowboys, Kongbo transferred to Arizona Western Community College, where he saw his recruitment take off. After initially committing to Tennessee, Kongbo later backed off that decision less than a month before Singing Day, while entertaining Alabama and Florida State. But by the time Signing Day came back around, Jones and his staffed reeled Kongbo back in and landed his signature.
As a Volunteer: Kongbo arrived on campus with quite a bit of hype but clashed with the coaching staff over whether or not he would be a defensive end or a defensive tackle in the Vols scheme. Regardless, he saw more than his fair share of action, appearing in 13 games and recording 11 total tackles. A full-time starter in 2017, Kongbo is having a better season, notching 26 total tackles through the first 10 games of the season. However, Kongbo has just two career sacks and the five-star defensive line trio of Phillips, McKenzie and Kongbo has just eight combined sacks between them in a combined eight seasons of play.
The grade: D
Farrell’s take: His technique is awful, he’s taken some very bad penalties because of that poor technique and he’s a freakish athlete who was never coached up to be the superstar we expected. I don’t know how he is still the same raw kid we saw on JUCO film now in his second season in college, but he is. He’s arguably the biggest disappointment for me on this list.