KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Butch Jones hasn't coached his first game at Tennessee yet, but he already has received his first taste of the rough-and-tumble world of Southeastern Conference football.
Jones' staff rallied late to get Tennessee a recruiting class ranked in the top 30 nationally Wednesday by most services, yet those same services also had this class in the bottom half of the SEC.
"Everything is competitive in the SEC," Jones said. "Every day you go to work, it's fourth-and-1 for the Super Bowl. Our coaches understand it."
Only nine of the 21 recruits in this class had committed to Tennessee before the Vols hired Jones away from Cincinnati on Dec. 7. Eight players who committed to Tennessee under former coach Derek Dooley switched to other schools after he was fired.
Eight members of Tennessee's class were previously committed elsewhere. That list includes tight end A.J. Branisel (Cincinnati), defensive end Malik Brown (Syracuse), quarterback Joshua Dobbs (Arizona State), athlete Malik Foreman (Vanderbilt), wide receiver Ryan Jenkins (Clemson), athlete Lemond Johnson (Auburn), running back Jabo Lee (East Carolina), offensive lineman Dylan Wiesman (Cincinnati). Brown and Dobbs made Signing Day switches.
"A lot of times when you're late in the process, you tend to maybe offer scholarships out there and you look back in time and wish you would have kept," Jones said. "We were extremely selective in the process. We had a formula for the type of player we needed to attract here in Knoxville."
The Vols hoped to add more star power this week.
Vonn Bell, a consensus five-star defensive back who plays for Rossville (Ga.) Ridgeland but lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., announced Wednesday he had chosen Ohio State over Tennessee. 247Sports national recruiting analyst Barton Simmons noted that Bell had grown up a Tennessee fan.
"I think there's no way to sugarcoat it," Simmons said. "That one stings."
Other near misses included consensus five-star defensive end Carl Lawson as well as linebacker E.J. Levenberry. Both considered Tennessee late in the recruiting season before sticking to their original commitments, as Lawson signed with Auburn and Levenberry chose Florida State.
"In the short time since he was hired, they became finalists for a lot of good prospects," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. "That in itself will lead to some momentum next year."
This class should fill holes in the passing game that were created when quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter chose to enter the NFL Draft after their junior seasons. Their departures had left Tennessee's roster with only two scholarship quarterbacks and without any wideouts who caught more than 13 passes last year.
Dobbs, rated a four-star recruit by most services, threw for 3,625 yards and 29 touchdowns while also rushing for 419 yards and 10 touchdowns last fall at Alpharetta (Ga.) High. Riley Ferguson was the quarterback for two state championship teams at Matthews (N.C.) Butler. MarQuez North, rated by Rivals.com as the nation's No. 2 receiving prospect, was one of four wideouts to sign with Tennessee.
"Trent Dilfer is a great friend of mine and he texted me and said, `We feel you have the best recruiting class in terms of quarterbacks in the country,' " Jones said.
The Vols' challenge in future recruiting classes is to keep Tennessee's best high school players.
Tennessee signed one of the top 25 prospects in the state of Tennessee as rated by Rivals.com last year. This year, the Vols signed only one of the top six prospects in the state according to the 247 Composite, which averages the ratings of all the major recruiting services. The highest-rated player from the state to sign with the Vols was Memphis White Station defensive end Jason Carr.
"We have to own the state of Tennessee," Jones said. "We're the one institution that says Tennessee. We have to own our state. There's an onus on us to recruit the state and an onus on those prospective student-athletes to want to come to Tennessee and represent their state."
That will become one of Tennessee's biggest tasks as it puts together its 2014 class while trying to reverse the fortunes of a program that has produced three straight losing seasons.
"I think the 2014 class will be - you hate to say it - but a make-or-break class," Farrell said. "Everybody in the SEC gets three years. If you don't do well in three years, you're gone. In three years, you've got to get it done. That means your first full recruiting class is the most important one. 2014 will tell the tale for them on the recruiting trail."
Jones' staff believes they will benefit from having a full year to recruit.
Jones took over Tennessee's program just two months ago. He didn't formally name any assistants until mid-December, giving this staff little time to complete its recruiting class. Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said it was like trying to erase a 28-0 deficit with five minutes left in the game.
"We've got a great head coach, and he's a great closer," Thigpen said. "We just ran out of time. I think next year when we've got 365 days... it's going to make a difference."