Q&A with ESPN’s Tom Luginbill on Tennessee recruiting, its growing class and Butch Jones

Butch Jones has used the brick-by-brick metaphor in building his team and his 2014 signing class.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — On Sunday we took a deeper look at Tennessee’s bulging 2014 signing class, which is now up to 31 verbal commitments.

The full story is for subscribers only, but here’s the key takeaway.

There are two rules for which there are no loopholes: Tennessee can only offer 25 new scholarships — “initial counters” in NCAA lingo — in each class, and the maximum number of players on scholarship cannot exceed 85.

So how does Tennessee plan to sign 30 if the limit is 25? Teams are allowed to “count back” the scholarships of midyear enrollees as long as the 25-scholarship limit is not exceeded in any single year. The Vols counted two of their 22-man class in 2013 against the 2012 scholarship limit.

This year, UT will count five players against the 2013 class and then take a full 25 in the 2014 class.

So that brings the Vols to 30. But what about 31? Or 32, 33 or 34, if UT keeps adding more verbal commitments?

There are some strategies that teams can use to manage overflowing classes:

Gray-shirting: A grayshirt agrees to delay his enrollment for at least one semester to count against the following year’s class.

In this case, a prospect would agree to push back enrollment from the summer of 2014 to January 2015. Grayshirting can be a great solution for a player who is rehabilitating a serious injury or who needs time to mature physically. But the player must be self-motivated, working out on his own and paying his own way to take classes for a semester.

Blue-shirting: This scheme was originated by New Mexico State but has not been practiced widely around the nation. Here’s how it works: Officially, a player arrives in the summer as a walk-on. Once football practice begins, he’s awarded a scholarship. The school is allowed to count the scholarship forward — against the 2015 class — but the player can play immediately.

There’s a big catch: The student-athlete may not have been recruited, as defined by NCAA bylaws. That means no official visit to campus, no in-home visits from coaches, no signed National Letter of Intent or athletic aid.

Only a handful of players, if any, would meet that criteria.

I spoke to Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s national director of recruiting, to get his thoughts on the Vols’ 2014 class and the recruiting effort of Butch Jones and his staff overall.

Here’s some of the stuff that didn’t fit in the story.

(On how Butch Jones built his staff with largely his own guys, with only linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen qualifying as well known name among those who follow SEC recruiting)

If you look at the places that Butch Jones and his staff have been, they haven’t been places that are easy to recruit to. So when you’re successful at programs that are difficult to recruit to, I think that speaks volumes to what type of recruiter you are. So whether it’s Central Michigan or Cincinnati, he knows what (his staff) brings to the table and he has a comfort level with their work ethic. They understand, more important than anything else, the type of player that they want. And proof has been in the pudding on whether they can get them.

Tommy Thigpen coaches Malik Foreman in August (photo by Evan Woodbery)

Going out and hiring the high-profile guy, is that a necessity? Probably not. In the case of Tommy Thigpen I think one of the reasons why he went that route was being mostly a Midwest staff, he was getting into somewhat uncharted territory as far as the recruiting pool and the landscape down here in the Southeast. So I think it was wise to bring a member to the staff that had deep-rooted recruiting experience in the South.

(On the importance of this class given its size and the amount of gaps on the current roster)

A: The importance of this class is that it’s going to be 30 guys, so it’s going to be a big class. The most important thing about this class is the number that will be mid-year enrollees. That’s critical because they’re going to have to have those guys play and have a role. So going after a player that you know can come in mid-year becomes a part of the plan, a part of the blueprint. A lot of people don’t think of it that way. You’re trying to get the best player, the player that fits — that’s true. But in their particular case, they need guys who can come in and get acclimated quickly and be part of the equation.

I think the one thing that Butch Jones and his staff have going for him, or have on their side that maybe Derek and his staff did not, is you’re off the APR list now and they have completely overhauled and revamped their academic support service program, which is not only going to be critical for the current roster, but is huge from a recruiting standpoint. I just think the resources available to Tennessee right now so far outweigh the resources that may have been available to previous staffs, and that’s going to be an advantage of them.

(Butch)  knows there’s no magic wand here. This isn’t going to happen overnight. But I think the pieces of the puzzle are in place. And it’s not just Butch and the staff and their philosophy. Keep in mind, Dave Hart knows what it takes to be great in football, as far as building a program. They hired Mike Vollmar, who was instrumental in the implementation of the Alabama process. He was with Nick (Saban) for a lot of years. So they’re putting all the components in place to blanket the athletic, academic, social atmospheres of Tennessee so that it can move forward in the right direction.

(On whether geography is a liability for Tennessee in recruiting)

Not just the city or the region, but the state. That’s always been a challenge at Tennessee. You might have, on average, four to six big-time, BCS-caliber players within your state every year, which basically means you can’t lose any of them. You have to get all of those guys, and then to supplement your roster you have to go into Nick Saban’s backyard and Mark Richt‘s backyard and Will Muschamp‘s backyard. And not just in the SEC, but in the ACC, too. So the competition is intense.

What Tennessee has — let’s just compare it to Missouri or Arkansas, two other teams that are in states that, by in large, don’t have great pools of talent, year in and year out. Tennessee has a national brand, nationally branded tradition, fan base, facilities, resources that allow for them to compensate and be able to go into other areas in recruiting and immediately be a recognizable figure. Whereas those are challenges for, let’s say, a Missouri or an Arkansas. Missouri goes down and recruits in Alabama and people are looking around: ‘Really?’ Tennessee goes into Alabama and they’re recognized immediately. So those are some of the things that allow them to maybe compensate or have a chance in other people’s backyards.

Tennessee’s outdoor practice fields with the Anderson Training Center in the background (photo by Evan Woodbery)

(On the importance of facilities or whether they are rapidly being equalized)

It’s more about staying caught up now. Ten to fifteen years ago, it was about getting out in front of it and having something no one else did, which a lot of programs were capable of doing, but by and large, they were all programs that had money and resources. Not everyone was playing with the same deck of cards — not that they are now. But when you look now and fast forward to this point, just about everybody in major college football has a football operations facility or an indoor facility or an academic services center for athletics. All those sorts of things came at some point in the last 10 to 15 years.

So now what’s happening is a one-up type of scenario. ‘All right, we’re pretty much on par with them, how can we offer something they don’t offer?’ Or, just a general overhaul and enhancement of facilities as a whole. That’s where you need the money. That is an area right now where Missouri is frantically trying to keep up. Because from a stadium standpoint and a football operations standpoint, they’re not at the level of their competitors in this conference. They know it. They know that’s the next phase, the next step.

It is a bit of a rat race. People like to call it the arms race.

Then you’ve got Oregon and they’re in a different class all their own. But I would argue that this facility here (at Tennessee) being finished now rivals anything in the country, certainly in the conference.

(On how Tennessee will handle having so many prospects)

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