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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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Vols’ odds to make a bowl game drop to about 70 percent after new projections

Butch Jones greets Nick Saban before Saturday’s game (AP photo by Dave Martin).

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Four games in November will decide Tennessee’s season.

A 2-2 record will send the Vols to their first bowl game since 2010, Derek Dooley’s first season. The Vols started that year 2-6, but won their last four games to reach bowl eligibility.

In 2013, the schedule is harder for first-year coach Butch Jones, but Tennessee must only win two of the final four games.

How likely are they to do so? We updated our Monte Carlo simulation after the Vols’ loss to No. 1 Alabama and tweaked some of the inputs to make them more consistent.

Here are the odds of Tennessee winning each of its last four games:

Nov. 2: @ Missouri: 23 percent

Nov. 9: vs. Auburn: 41 percent

Nov. 23: vs. Vanderbilt: 62 percent

Nov. 30: at Kentucky: 75 percent.

The odds listed above are educated guesses, but I tried to use a consistent method. I calculated an expected margin of victory based on Sagarin predictor ratings, which are sometimes similar to the point spreads set by Vegas. Then I converted the spread to a rough money line and converted the money line to an implied percentage.

Then I entered all the numbers in my make-shift simulator and ran the rest of the season about 1,000 times.

Here’s what it spat out:

4-0 finish, 8-4, 5-3 overall: 4.46 percent

3-1 finish, 7-5, 4-4 overall: 25.73 percent

2-2 finish, 6-6, 3-5 overall: 41.13 percent

1-3 finish, 5-7, 2-6 overall: 24.92 percent

0-4 finish, 4-8, 1-7 overall: 3.76 percent

The bold numbers give Tennessee bowl eligibility.

I ran a few smaller simulations just for the heck of it.

Missouri has a higher-than-I-expected 17 percent chance of winning out this season and a 45 percent chance of finishing 10-2, 6-2.

Will No. 1 Alabama finish the regular season with an undefeated record? My quick simulation put the odds at about 70 percent.

Alabama beat writer Q&A: The view from Tuscaloosa

A.J. McCarron against Texas A&M. (AP Photo. David J. Phillip)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — No. 1 Alabama seems to have few flaws, at least few that have been exposed by anyone other than Johnny Manziel.

We asked Andrew Gribble, Alabama beat writer for AL.com and its associated newspapers, just how good the Tide is.

Gribble previously covered Tennessee for the News Sentinel. Since he started on the Alabama beat, the Tide is 20-1.

1. Does the injury to Vinnie Sunseri leave the Tide’s secondary vulnerable in any way, or is it just on to the next one?

The biggest loss that comes from Sunseri’s injury is the leadership void it creates on the back end of Alabama’s defense. Sunseri had really emerged as the commander of Alabama’s secondary and was in charge of putting players in their proper positions. This aspect of his game was incredibly valuable during a stretch in which CB Deion Belue dealt (and continues to deal) with a nagging injury, S HaHa Clinton-Dix was suspended and a rotating crew of underclassmen was filling the other CB spot.

Sophomore Landon Collins will replace Sunseri in most formations. Collins is incredibly talented and has been playing his butt off wherever Alabama has asked. He’s an absolute monster on special teams. So from that standpoint, Alabama has other positions with a greater drop-off in talent than the one they’re testing at strong safety. That said, a team never gets better when a player like Sunseri goes down.

2. There’s been a lot of talk about the relevance of this rivalry. There have been streaks in the series before, but the margin of Alabama’s recent wins have been very large. How do fans, players and coaches view this series?

I think this rivalry had understandably grown a bit stale with Alabama fans and players over the past couple of years, but Tennessee’s big win against South Carolina seems to have rekindled some of the back-and-forth that makes it one of the best in the SEC. Alabama’s administrators are just as serious as Dave Hart when it pertains to making sure this rivalry game remains in place on future SEC schedules.

With the way Alabama’s 2013 schedule has played out, I think Crimson Tide fans and players have been looking for something to get excited about other than the LSU game, and this seems like the perfect time heading into a bye week.

3. Texas A&M is the only Alabama opponent that has kept the game close. Is there anything that a team without Johnny Manziel on its roster can learn from that game?

That’s tough because Manziel really appears to be this defense’s only version of kryptonite. Perhaps because of what Manziel has done to Alabama over the past two years, there’s a misguided perception that it struggles to stop mobile quarterbacks. That’s not true at all. This defense struggles to stop quarterbacks who can run as well as a running back, scramble for seven or eight seconds and then find a super talented receiver open down the field with accurate passes.

If anything, I suppose this year’s Texas A&M game highlighted Alabama’s need for a cornerback other than Belue to step up and hold his own against man coverage. Belue isn’t at 100 percent and likely won’t be during the rest of the season because of a toe injury. Alabama has started three different players at the opposite cornerback spot and drawn mixed results. No team since Texas A&M has been able to take advantage of it.

4. How does this team compare to past Alabama national championship teams?

When Alabama appeared to be struggling early in the season, many folks started making comparisons to 2010, when Alabama had a loaded roster but ultimately never lived up to expectations and lost three times. Those comparisons have stopped because of what the Crimson Tide has done over the past three weeks. While the 2010 team never seemed to improve, this Alabama team — other than its letdown stinker against Colorado State — has gotten better with each game.

The offense is a bit behind last year’s pace because of the season opener against Virginia Tech and the defense is just off the pace set by the 2011 team because of Texas A&M. This season’s special teams is probably the best Nick Saban has ever had at Alabama. It probably wasn’t until last week when Alabama was able to get all three facets clicking at the same time. When it does, games like Saturday’s 52-0 rout of Arkansas happen.

5. What is the biggest hurdle in Alabama’s path to another title?

From an on-field perspective, LSU and Auburn remain the two toughest challenges. On paper, Alabama has the clear advantage over LSU, but only one game between the teams has been separated by fewer than 10 points since Saban was hired. Auburn has been playing incredibly well, but the Tigers’ strength (running the ball) plays into one of Alabama’s top strengths (stopping the run.) This team has the depth to survive a few more injuries, but there are key spots such as quarterback, left tackle, cornerback and now safety where Alabama’s title run would really be jeopardized if something happened to the starters at those positions.

This year’s Crimson Tide has seemingly dealt with more off-the-field issues than any of Saban’s previous teams. The “clutter” hasn’t seemed to affect the players much, as Alabama scored its biggest win of the season just days after the Yahoo! D.J. Fluker story dropped. The only one that truly affected the on-field product, though, was Clinton-Dix’s suspension. Alabama outscored the competition 93-10 during his absence, so it clearly came at an ideal time on the schedule.

Butch Jones: Vols can make rivalries more relevant by winning games

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Butch Jones modeling the smokey gray today. #IRU

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KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee coach Butch Jones echoed comments he made during Florida week about the relevance of the Vols’ traditional rivalries.

Right now, he said, they’re too one-sided.

“In order to make these rivalries relevant, we have to start winning more games,” Jones said Wednesday on the SEC teleconference.

During his portion of the call, Alabama coach Nick Saban praised Tennessee’s progress this season.

“They probably have the best overall offensive line we’ve had to play this year,” Saban said.

SEC Media Days in review: Coaches in word clouds and other observations

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KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — After three days of talk — some enlightening, some mind-numbing, we took a day off to catch our breath and take stock of SEC Media Days 2013.

We decided one way — no, the only way — to fully understand the week was to put the coaches’ opening statements into artistic word clouds. Thus, the gallery above.

Other pertinent thoughts from the league’s kickoff event:

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SEC Media Days: Coaches tussle over safety of fast-paced offenses


HOOVER, Alabama — When Gus Malzahn first heard that some coaches believed his hurry-up, no-huddle offense was unsafe for players, he thought it was sarcasm.

“To be honest with you, I thought it was a joke,” he said.

When that comment was relayed to new Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, things got interesting in a hurry.

Raising his voice and speaking forcefully, Bielema said he was convinced that forcing players to remain on the field for multiple snaps without rest increasing the risk of serious injury.

“The personal safety of my players is paramount,” Bielema said. “It’s not a joke to me.”

Auburn’s first-year coach has built his career upon the hurry-up offense, beginning as an innovative high school coach in Arkansas.

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