Butch Jones didn't have the luxury of bringing in 60 players this year but the 18 he signed on Wednesday, coupled with the 14 mid-term enrollees he signed in December, just might represent the best freshman class since "The General" left coaching following the 1952 season.
I learned that lesson in 1978. I was in my fourth year as a sports writer for The Knoxville Journal when Johnny Majors, wrapping up his first year as Tennessee's head coach, signed a 1978 class that featured seven Parade All-Americans. Included were four prized running backs – James Berry (Natchez, Miss.), Glen Ford (Greensboro, N.C.), Terry Daniels (Miami) and Dennis Mahan (Martinsville, Va.).
Big Orange fans figured one of the four would do for Majors at Tennessee what Tony Dorsett had done for him at Pittsburgh – win a Heisman Trophy and a national title. Alas, there was no Tony Dorsett among the '78 Parade All-Americans.
Mahan never got a carry on The Hill but later starred for Hampton University in his home state. Berry's best year saw him run for 543 yards as a junior in 1980. Daniels peaked with 363 yards that same season. Ford had superior talent but a fumbling problem that kept him on the bench. When he left UT after rushing for a mere 223 yards as a sophomore, I wrote a headline for The Knoxville Journal that read, "Ford drops football … again." Sports editor Ben Byrd decided that was too snide and made me change it.
Tennessee refined recruiting to an art form in the mid-1990s. The 1994 signing class featured five future stars – defensive end Jonathan Brown, cornerback Terry Fair, kicker Jeff Hall, receiver Marcus Nash and a lanky quarterback named Peyton Manning.
The '95 class produced sack master Leonard Little, four-year starting offensive tackle Chad Clifton, fullback Shawn Bryson, receivers Peerless Price and Jeremaine Copeland, center Spencer Riley, safety Fred White and a safety named Al Wilson who wound up being a pretty fair linebacker.
|Deon Grant contributed to a BCS National Championship at Tennessee and enjoyed a lengthy career in the NFL.|
|(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)|
Like Majors' 1978 class, Phillip Fulmer's 1997 class was loaded with superior running backs. The difference? The '97 rushers lived up to their press clippings … and then some.
Jamal Lewis ran for 1,364 yards as a true freshman in 1997. Travis Henry ran for 1,314 as a senior in 2000. After waiting his turn, Travis Stephens set a school record that still stands with 1,464 yards as a redshirt senior in 2001. Stuck behind all of that rushing talent, Dominique Stevenson switched to middle linebacker, where he started for three years.
Most of the 1997 signees cited above played key roles in Tennessee's run to the 1998 national championship. That's why I consider ‘97 to be the greatest signing class in program history.
Based on pure star power, however, the 2014 recruits may be even better. The '97 class proved that elite running backs are crucial, and the '14 Vol group features two four-star rushers in Jalen Hurd and Derrell Scott. Desperate for playmaking receivers, Tennessee signed four-stars LaVon Pearson from the JUCO ranks and Josh Malone from the prep ranks.
The Vols absolutely mopped up at tight end, landing Scout's No. 3 recruit (Daniel Helm) and No. 5 recruit (Ethan Wolf) at the position. That's mind-boggling right there. Tennessee also took a key step toward rebuilding its graduation-riddled offensive line by signing four-star JUCO Dontavius Blair, who projects to start at left tackle from Day 1.
Tennessee landed some potential difference-makers on defense, as well. These include 10 four-star recruits – tackle Charles Mosley, ends Dewayne Hendrix and Derek Barnett, linebackers Dillon Bates, Gavin Bryant and JUCO Christopher Weatherd, cornerback D'Andre Payne, plus safeties Evan Berry, Cortez McDowell and Todd Kelly.
Throw in the fact the Big Orange reeled in an elite kicker, Aaron Medley, and I feel reasonably confident in saying this is the best recruiting class Tennessee has signed in the past 40 years.