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COMMENTARY BY JOE BIDDLE: Focus shifts from staff building to recruiting at UT

As expected, Tennessee football coach Butch Jones has hit the ground running. He has been a coaching version of the Energizer Bunny.


He completed his staff, so that is one goal he can put to bed. Is it the best staff in the country, as he promised? No. But it may be the best staff for Tennessee football at this time.


It is heavily weighted with Cincinnati assistants. That will make the coaching transition easier. They have worked together and know what is expected and have been successful.


I am not sold on Willie Martinez, who coached the safeties at Auburn and last year’s defense was one of the worst in school history. Martinez didn’t cut it when he was Georgia’s defensive coordinator from 2005-09 and was let go. He does have SEC experience and is a good recruiter.


Tyler Thigpen’s value is as a recruiter and everyone on Rocky Top knows they need to see an upgrade in the recruiting results. Recruiting is the lifeline in SEC football.


When Jones said Les Miles and Nick Saban didn’t have any SEC recruiting experience before they came to the SEC and they have fared well, he was right. But they landed at LSU, where the state is loaded with SEC talent. The state is also within close-range of talent rich states Florida, Texas and Mississippi.

Understandably, with the coaching change, Tennessee’s recruiting is not ranked very high in the eyes of recruiting services. has Tennessee ranked No. 35 and has the Vols at No. 39 with 15 verbal commitments. By comparison, Vanderbilt is ranked 11th by Rivals and 14th by Scout.


That being said, Jones has the reputation of taking lower ranked recruits and coaching them up. He did it at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. But doing it on the SEC level will be Jones’ biggest challenge.


Don’t forget Johnny Manziel was a 3-star recruit coming out of high school and he now owns a Heisman Trophy and a win over the defending national champions. But those stories are few and far between.


I predict Jones’ work ethic, enthusiasm and communication skills will carry him a long way in trying to restore the roar in Neyland Stadium.


Jones knows the importance of keeping the best prospects at home. Too many have gone out of state in recent years and that never used to happen. He needs to keep a Barrett Jones at home, same with a Dont’a Hightower. Both players were All-Americans at Alabama. Hightower, a 6-4, 270-pound linebacker is a rookie starter for New England and a first-round draft pick. Both those guys, and there are others, would look good in orange and those are the type players Jones and his staff have to keep home.


Currently you have top prospects such as Ensworth running back Corn Elder and Hendersonville Beech junior running back Jason Hurd. Both are athletes and capable of playing other positions. Hurd scored seven touchdowns, running for 394 yards in the state championship game against Columbia Central.


But any coach will need four years before the Vols are able to stand toe-to-toe with the SEC elite teams. They gave Derek Dooley three years and some nice parting gifts. Could Dooley have turned the corner in the next two years? We’ll never know.


Now the ball is in Butch Jones’ hands. The early impressions are favorable.


But his journey on the Hill is just beginning.


Joe Biddle is a four-time sports writer of the year in Tennessee. He can be reached at

Posted on: 12/18/2012


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