And so thus ends what we hope will be the strangest recruiting cycle of our lives. New coach not hired until January 27! First year of NIL! Unknown recruiting sanctions! A billion guys in the portal! 3-7 last year! 78-82 from 2008-2020!
At the end of all that…well, we really weren’t sure we were at the end of all that. Tennessee sought traction in Josh Heupel’s first year both on the field, and on the trail. The Vols found the former on October 2 against Missouri. The latter took until the final few weeks leading up to the early signing date.
But the results are another data point for what Heupel and his staff are building in Knoxville, and they include an incredible close with this class.
The Vols are currently 15th in the 247 Composite Rankings, but if you’ve been around here or spent time with us at SB Nation, you know what we like to value is blue chip ratio: what percentage of your signees are four-and-five star players? If you want to win a national championship, the answer needs to be 50% or better.
This staff’s finish included DL Tyre West, the highest-ranked player in the class. They also added RB Justin Williams, WR Kaleb Webb, and edge rushers James Pearce and Joshua Josephs, all four-stars. Those commitments in late November and December moved Tennessee’s class from three blue chip players to seven, giving Heupel’s first full class a ratio of 35%.
It’s not 50%, of course. But considering all of the above in the last year/last 14 years, it’s a good start by way of an excellent close.
In the 247 composite, here’s how Tennessee’s blue chip ratio stacks up in the post-Fulmer era:
Heupel turned in a class slightly better than Derek Dooley’s first full group in February 2011. There was certainly some instability then, but the Vols were also still just three years and change removed from Atlanta, instead of getting ready to celebrate a 15th anniversary.
More importantly, Heupel avoided a setback class. This happened at the beginning and end of the Butch Jones era. With the transition class of February 2013, Jones made up for it by landing Josh Dobbs and Cameron Sutton, then recruiting at or around a championship level in the next three classes.
But his last full class in February 2017 became part of the problem for Jeremy Pruitt. That group included Trey Smith, but the other blue chip signees either transferred or never panned out. Josh Palmer is buried in there as the 121st best WR in the class, and Josh Heupel and his staff got the best football from guys like Matthew Butler and Theo Jackson. You still need to get your evaluations right and get the most from the three stars you sign. But overall, a group like that can slow the development of your program. The transfer portal can cure some of what ails you here, but seems unlikely to solve all of one’s problems.
As this season went on, there was concern the Vols still might have to eat one of those years. But credit this staff for turning in a remarkable finish, and not falling any further behind in the talent race.
The next part, of course, is to take steps to move ahead. That too is no guarantee: in blue chip ratio, no one did it better than Pruitt (plus or minus McDonald’s bags, etc.). But talent doesn’t hurt.
In this department, the other interesting development from this class is elsewhere in the SEC East. Again, I’m not sure how much longer we’ll have an SEC East at all. But if Texas and Oklahoma are still playing in the Big 12 in 2022, there’s a chance they may actually be there until 2025 as the contracts currently state. If so, the kids who are being recruited now probably won’t see the Longhorns and the Sooners, which means the current format is the most relevant.
And in the current format, note the rise of Kentucky and Missouri.
The Cats sit 11th in the 247 rankings, with nine blue chip signees on 20 total (45%). Missouri is right behind them in 12th, with eight out of 16 (50%).
Kentucky’s blue chip ratio the year before: 22.2%. Mizzou’s: 8.3%.
This is year nine for Mark Stoops in Lexington, and the Cats are 9-3 heading to Orlando. After going 12-24 his first three years, he’s 46-29 in the last six. Our underlying assumptions – “They’re good, but not talented.” “They’re talented, but only this class.” – will be tested. Kentucky does not appear to be going anywhere.
As for Mizzou:
Eli Drinkwitz is clearly a good fit for the SEC if he’s trying to dunk on Dan Mullen and Florida. But their recruiting is no doubt an interesting development. It’s easy for us to brush this aside because we feel like we got right against them, and Heupel aced the initial test of getting past Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt. But if Kentucky and Missouri continue to recruit like this, they won’t be the Kentucky and Missouri we know and love.
(South Carolina, by the way: four blue chip players on 22 commits, 18.2%.)
There’s a lot left to learn about Josh Heupel and recruiting. But his first step didn’t go backwards when there was more reason than ever for that to be the case, thanks to the kind of finish that would be successful anywhere in this league. And at the same time, this league does not appear to be getting any easier.
The 2023 class is mostly a blank slate, with four-star tight end Ethan Davis in the fold, also a piece of that December commit flourish. He joins three-star safety Jack Luttrell. And that’s it for now. The Vols still have some room to work in the transfer portal as well. We’ll see where it goes from here. But a good job by this staff giving us reason to believe it can indeed go forward.