KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee might not have made the biggest splash in December when it hired Cincinnati's Butch Jones as its new football coach.
Jones and his staff quickly created waves in recruiting, though.
The Volunteers already have racked up 11 commitments for the 2014 class, and though next February's signing day is more than nine months away, Tennessee's class ranks third in the country according to 247sports.com, fourth in the country according to Rivals.com and fifth nationally in the Scout.com rankings.
The hot start in recruiting appears to have many Tennessee fans excited.
"I think the momentum they created at the end of the last recruiting cycle paid off for them," Rivals national analyst Mike Farrell said. "They didn't land a lot of the guys they tried to bring in, but they got a lot of them very interested. I could tell at the end of the cycle that this was a good staff they put together -- they were going to be able to do some good things and build on the momentum.
"I think the biggest thing for Butch is that he's undefeated at Tennessee. He's got a good resume from Cincinnati, and he's selling a vision. Sometimes that can be a tremendous asset for you in the offseason."
After landing five players in six days in March -- a run that included the state's two top-ranked players in tailback Jalen Hurd and safety Todd Kelly -- the Vols have added four commitments this month.
Tennessee's total of 11 commitments is the second-most in the country, behind only Texas, which has 13. In recent cycles, the Vols have entered the summer with two or three public pledges. Add that sudden increase to the Midwestern coaching history of Jones and much of the staff, and Tennessee's start comes as a bit of a surprise.
"It typically is harder when you're going from one region to another," Scout analyst Jamie Newberg said. "Then you factor in going from a place like Cincinnati, and no disrespect toward Cincinnati, but it's not Tennessee. You're recruiting a different area, a different region, but you're only as good as the staff you surround yourself with, and they've obviously done a good job doing that.
"It's Tennessee; it's the SEC; it's tradition, facilities, the opportunity to play early in that league at a place like Tennessee. [Jones] has done a good job in the past from what I've seen, in terms of recruiting. The snowball's rolling right now, and for them they just want to keep it rolling."
Both Farrell and Newberg said an uptick in recruiting is common for programs with plenty to sell that have just hired a new coaching staff. Many of the Vols' commitments have cited a sense of excitement and enthusiasm and the fresh air Jones has brought. Until the Vols play a game and a season under their new staff, though, the selling is more about an idea than an actual product.
"Kids want to go Tennessee. They just needed a reason," Farrell said. "The results on the field the past few years were one of the main reasons people sort of stayed away. I don't think anybody really bought into the fact that [Derek] Dooley was the right guy. I don't think kids believed that he was going to be there for much longer, and that can really hurt your recruiting.
"Now you've got a guy who comes in with a good resume, you've got a guy who's put together a very aggressive and active staff, and like I said, he's never lost a game at Tennessee. He hasn't won one yet, but he hasn't lost one, so now's the time where I think you're going to see that new-coach boost that you get in recruiting. That's what we're seeing with Tennessee."
There may be more to the Vols' start than a typical trend.
When the ink dried on the 2013 signing class, Jones and his assistants stressed the importance of relationships in recruiting. On signing day, the staff spent most of the day calling recruits for this year's class. What appears to be a hard-working, blue-collar staff is building those relationships, and that already has paid dividends.
With its shiny new nearly $50 million training facility, a 102,000-seat stadium, the pull of playing in the conference that boasts the best competition and the most NFL draft picks, there's plenty to sell at Tennessee. Yet as some around the program have noted, the people are making the difference.
One person inside the program used the term "grinders" to describe the approach and effort in recruiting of many of Tennessee's assistant coaches.
The 2014 class has some built-in advantages like a strong class of legacy recruits, who have connections to Tennessee through their parents or other relatives, and one of the strongest in-state crops in recent years, and the Vols still must add instant-impact players on both the offensive and defensive lines and hold on to some of their current commitment list.
So far, though, Jones and his staff have Tennessee off to an impressive start.
"He wasn't the sexy hire," Farrell said. "Jon Gruden and Charlie Strong, those guys would have been sexy hires, but I don't think either them could do better than what Tennessee's doing right now recruiting-wise, so I think he's done a great job. It's a little bit of surprise because he does not have the ties to the area ... but he's put together a really good staff, and I think that's important.
"When you get guys like [linebackers coach] Tommy Thigpen and some of the other guys working, you're going to be successful because those guys hustle. I think it's a surprise, yes, in one regard, because Butch Jones is not the big name, but Tennessee football's still Tennessee football. People want an excuse to go there, and they just haven't had a good one to go there in recent years."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...