- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- From Ole Miss' huge day to the continued recruiting rise of Texas A&M and UCLA, 2013 gave us plenty to talk about on signing day. Here are my biggest takeaways from the day, starting with a look at Tennessee's first class under its new coach.
1. Volunteers close strong, get help at QB
Butch Jones is no stranger to the concept of transition. In particular, the Tennessee Volunteers' head coach (the school's fourth since 2008) understands what it's like to take a job and then have a finite period to, by various means, pull together a recruiting class.
He did it at Central Michigan. He did it at Cincinnati. In those cases, though, he was following Brian Kelly, who had left for bigger jobs. In this case, he follows a Hall of Famer who was fired, a coach who bolted after one season and another who was fired following three middling years.
Once a model for stability in the sport, Tennessee was shaken like a snow globe and the pieces are still suspended around Jones. Signing day represented the image of those flying flakes beginning to settle. "We've had our storms, but the sun is starting to shine through the clouds again," Jones said Wednesday, the sun literally shining on Neyland Stadium outside his office windows.
The immediate challenge: The newest new UT coach and his staff had 31 permissible days of recruiting from Dec. 7, when he was introduced, until signing day. That meant maintaining existing relationships and commitments. It meant quickly building new bridges and prioritizing a revamped target list.
The end result: The Volunteers announced Wednesday the signing of 21 prospects, including 12 who made decisions after Jones was hired.
Eight of the dozen were committed to other schools.
"We were playing catch-up," Jones said. "I don't like doing it that way, but they showed an interest in us and we just presented the facts."
Dillon (S.C.) running back Jabo Lee was one of them. He flipped earlier this week from East Carolina to UT. Jones said Lee likely would have received a far higher rating -- he was a three-star, per our RecruitingNation guys -- if not for an injury during his senior year.
Alpharetta (Ga.) quarterback Joshua Dobbs was another. He had long been committed to Arizona State, but he told the staff Tuesday night that he would be a Vol.
Dobbs intends to major in aeronautical engineering at Tennessee, and Jones said the engineering department helped to recruit him. So, yeah, he's bright. Jones calls it "functional intelligence," something he looks for in all his QBs.
During a visit, Jones said he intentionally tried to stump Dobbs by drawing up a complicated play, explaining it as quickly as possible, and then erasing it from a dry-erase board. A few minutes later, the coach handed the pen to Dobbs and asked him to recreate it. He did, flawlessly.
Jones had tried to pull a Jon Gruden on Dobbs. Spider-3-Y-banana stuff.
"He passed," Jones said. "Gruden would love him."
Tennessee had only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster before Jones signed Dobbs and Charlotte-area prospect Riley Ferguson.
"I'd never heard of that," Jones said.
Both Dobbs and Ferguson came highly recommended by ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer, who works a great deal with the Elite 11 camp that included the quarterbacks. Jones said Dilfer, a friend of his, texted the coach Wednesday to say he had signed the best QB class in the country. (Ole Miss and Vanderbilt were the only other schools in the country to land two four-star QBs.)
Jones said both players will at least have a shot this summer to compete for the starting job, presumably held now by junior Justin Worley.
"We don't want anyone coming here thinking they'll just sit out and redshirt," he said.
To that, Jones raved about the attitude of an early enrollee, Maryland native Paul Harris. Additionally, the staff got a commitment last week from Charlotte-area receiver Marquez North, who wound up being Tennessee's only ESPN 150 signee. Six-foot-3 and 225 pounds, North had offers from a number of name programs: Florida, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oregon, etc.
He'll go down as Jones' first big get.
"North Carolina has traditionally been a great state for us. It has to be," Jones said. "To go into North Carolina and take the No. 1 player in the state was big for us. It was monumental. You couple that with his physical attributes and his skill set, and that was big for us in a number of areas."
Running backs coach Jay Graham, the only remaining member from Derek Dooley's staff, received the lion's share of the credit for signing North and retaining Ferguson, who was considered by Alabama and others.
Just after Dooley had been let go in December, I recall talking with Graham, who said he was doggedly calling recruits to reassure them everything was going to be OK -- even though he didn't know then whether Jones would keep him.
Jones told me he calls it "rehiring" coaches rather than retaining them. They've got to earn it, he said, and Graham -- a 1,000-yard rusher at UT during the 1990s -- did so. He wound up soothing the transition in a variety of ways, including the recruiting realm. He familiarized his new co-workers and Jones with the board.
With late decisions such as North and Dobbs, Tennessee closed relatively well (as did most of the schools with first-year coaches, particularly Gus Malzahn at Auburn). Well enough for a top-30 class nationally -- but it was only 11th in the SEC, yet another illustration of the conference's dominance (all 14 league members ranked in the top 38 of ESPN's class rankings). UT believed, even as of Wednesday morning, that a stronger finish was possible.
I was told by someone close to the program that the staff was visibly disappointed Wednesday morning when North Georgia safety prospect Vonn Bell, a four-star player, chose Ohio State over UT.
Bell would have been the Vols' exclamation point. They instead finished with something of an ellipsis, a nod toward next year's class.
"I think this class will serve as a great foundation, springboarding us into next year," Jones said.
In a manner of speaking, it is next year. When I walked into the brand-new, futuristic-looking football offices Wednesday afternoon, I was greeted by a couple of assistant coaches scurrying around.
"Already working on '14," one, almost out of breath, said as he passed me.
During my time inside Jones' office, on three different occasions I told him it was fine for him to take calls from recruits or their high school coaches. (Graceful of me to let the man do his job, right?)
"I've probably talked to 80 kids today," he said, and I don't think he was joking. He also estimated he had consumed 16 cups of coffee by 2:30 p.m. I don't know that he was kidding about that, either.
Everyone quickly moves on to the juniors, but Jones said UT was probably going at it with more vigor, because it started so far behind for '13.
"I think there's a sense of urgency," he said. "We need to attack the recruiting process for 2014 like we did this past year. I think we'll like our work at the end of the day.
"Who wouldn't want to come to Tennessee? That's the way we look at it now."
2. Ole Miss 'won' Signing Day. Now what?
While signing day was the eye-opener for a lot of fans, coaches who had been working the phones and pounding the pavement knew what was coming from the Rebels. It had been building for a few months.
"That's going to be one interesting story to follow," one coach told me earlier in the week, "how that class does."
Another reminded me that one great class does not always equal success, though he did commend Hugh Freeze for taking the Rebels from two to seven wins in his first season.
One assistant who has coached at a number of high-end programs said his most miserable years came on the heels of the biggest recruiting hauls with the most five-star athletes.
"Will they be the kind of guys that make you wish you had two-stars and three-stars who work hard?" the coach said. "Or will they live up to what they're supposed to be? We'll see."
When I tweeted Wednesday about Ole Miss' big day, fans responded with similar strains of "they haven't done anything yet." Those fans also wondered aloud whether rules had been broken to acquire the class, which in a way is actually something of a compliment to the Rebels for how good the class is on paper.
That's the air these days in college football, because of how many recruiting-related NCAA investigations we've seen in recent years. It's not all that different than an emergent power hitter in baseball. Ole Miss is Jose Bautista, in effect. Rightly or wrongly, a sensational class from an unproven program creates skepticism.
3. 'Little brothers' in richly talented states playing catch-up
The balance of power in the state of Texas is shifting rather quickly. It's as if the Texas Longhorns never thought that was possible, but now Texas A&M, Baylor and TCU are really not that far off the pace.
With signing day in mind, the Aggies landed six ESPN 150 prospects Wednesday compared to five for the Longhorns. It's the first time in at least six classes that A&M has even been in the same territory as Texas, let alone passed the flagship school. As a relative comparison, UT had 51 ESPN 150 players from 2008-12 -- averaging 10.2 a class -- while A&M had a total of 12 in that span.
In 2009, the Aggies had no ESPN 150 signees. Their highest-rated player in the class, the only four-star in the lot, was a kicker.
Things have changed fast.
The same is happening in the battle for L.A. UCLA trailed USC the entire way -- until signing day, when the Bruins pushed ahead in the class rankings as the Trojans precipitously fell. Of course, there was also UCLA's 10-point win on the field back in November.
Advantage UCLA, even if second-year coach Jim Mora doesn't make comparisons. At least publicly.
"We don't talk about anybody but UCLA," Mora told ESPNU's Dari Nowkhah on Wednesday. "We're not just trying to win the city. We're trying to win the nation."
Mora said needs were addressed at offensive line, linebacker and defensive backfield. The Bruins still have a young quarterback -- Brett Hundley, a fringe Heisman contender, will be a redshirt sophomore -- but signing the top dual-threat prospect in the nation (Asiantii Woulard) is never a bad thing. Woulard was the Elite 11 MVP over the summer.
4. Has Miami seen the worst?
Jones' metaphor of the storm clouds breaking is perhaps more apropos for the Miami Hurricanes, given the literal and symbolic climate.
As more and more comes out about the NCAA investigation, it's becoming less likely that the punishment for the Hurricanes' involvement with Nevin Shapiro will be of any real consequence. I sensed relief Wednesday listening to coach Al Golden when he was interviewed by ESPN's Rece Davis. Can you blame him? He took the Miami job understanding there was a cloud hanging over the program. But it just lingered.
Golden said Wednesday it was as if the staff had two opponents while recruiting: other teams and the pending sanctions. After voluntarily sitting out bowl games the past two seasons, Golden is hopeful that's enough. And it very well might be.
The ACC is definitely a proponent of that being the case. It would gladly welcome the Miami it believed it was getting from the Big East. Add in Louisville, and the league could finally get the boost it needs to chase down the top four leagues in the country.
5. Just the fax, man
Nervous energy is a real part of signing day. I'm not sure I realized it until I took this job and began talking to a number of coaches across the country.
Even though coaches are 99 percent sure a kid is going to sign with their school, there is anxiety until the letter actually rolls through the fax machine. And if that thing goes quiet for a few minutes, coaches' nerves begin to get frayed. It makes sense since the assistants have sunk a chunk of their lives into building relationships, sometimes for years, with kids who are, well, kids and capable of sudden changes of heart and mind.
That's why you still see the war-room euphoria from coaches when they do receive a commitment, even if they "know" it's coming.
Channeling Seinfeld, what's the deal with using fax machines, anyway? Scanning and emailing is a pretty effective means of transferring paperwork these days. The odds of a fax not going through seem a lot higher than the odds of an email not transmitting. If we can get a playoff in college football, perhaps technological advances are also on the way.
Then again, no fax cams.