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Tennessee Vols' Butch Jones faces challenge with SEC recruiting

10:58 AM, Feb 11, 2013   |    comments
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By David Climer | The Tennessean

'Everything is accelerated in the SEC,' new Tennessee Vols coach Butch Jones says about recruiting in the conference.

His first Southeastern Conference game is more than seven months away, but Butch Jones already has gotten a crash course in life in college football's fast lane.

By going head-to-head with various SEC programs in pursuit of talented recruits for Tennessee, Jones got a dose of the challenge that lies ahead.

"Everything is accelerated in the SEC," he said. "Every day, you have to bring your 'A' game, no matter what you're doing. But it's invigorating. As a competitor, you want to go up against the best each and every day."

It was a rush job. Jones was hired at UT on Dec. 7. Because of the NCAA-mandated "dead periods" on the calendar, Jones had only 31 permissible recruiting days before national signing day last Wednesday.

In finishing the class that began under predecessor Derek Dooley, Jones won some battles and lost others. He acknowledged that attracting SEC-caliber players is particularly difficult because of the competition, but said the process is essentially the same at UT as it was at his previous head-coaching stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

"Recruiting is selling," he said. "It's a people-oriented business. It's about establishing relationships. The big thing is the overall philosophy and the overall intensity on a minute-by-minute basis in recruiting in the SEC.

"There's no cookie-cutter approach to recruiting. Everybody is different. But at the end of the day, it's about being able to develop that trust and having a tremendous product to sell, which we do at Tennessee."

UT's signing class ranked No. 20 nationally, according to Rivals.com. But that was only 10th in the SEC. Down the stretch the Vols couldn't close the deal on a handful of coveted recruits. Among them were running backs Derrick Henry, who signed with Alabama, and Johnathan Ford, who chose Auburn.

As if going head-to-head against SEC coaches wasn't tough enough, Jones lost prime defensive back prospect Vonn Bell to former Florida coach Urban Meyer, who has implemented an SEC-style recruiting philosophy at Ohio State.

From all accounts, Jones did a terrific job of playing catch-up in the pursuit of Bell, who lives in Ooltewah, Tenn., but played high school ball just across the state line in Georgia. However, when it came time to put pen to paper, Bell pledged his allegiance to Ohio State.

It was one of several signing-day coups for Meyer, who is changing how Big Ten football does business. When Meyer arrived at Ohio State last year, he immediately flipped prospects who previously had committed to Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State.

When opposing coaches cried foul, Meyer shrugged it off. In the SEC, he learned that all's fair in love and recruiting.

Live and learn. Since landing at UT, Jones put together a staff that is passionate about recruiting and is laying the groundwork for the recruiting Class of 2014.

"You work as hard as you can, but sometimes there's just too much ground to make up," assistant Tommy Thigpen said. "You build relationships over 365 days, not a few weeks. ... We just ran out of time with some guys."

Moving forward, that is the biggest challenge for Jones and his staff. He knows his second recruiting class needs to be better than his first, particularly with an uncommon number of big-time prospects in the state.

"At the end of the day, it's all about players and how we develop them once we get them," Jones said. "You win with players and you win with character. You can never take a day off in recruiting."

Especially in the SEC.

David Climer's columns appear on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Contact him at 615-259-8020 or dclimer@

tennessean.com.

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