Heralded class brings higher expectations for VolsUniversity of Tennessee NCAA college football signees Jakob Johnson, of Jacksonville, Fla., left, Von Pearson, of Newport News, Va., and Jalen Hurd, of Hendersonville, Tenn., walk in Neyland Stadium after being introduced on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Saul Young)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Tennessee coach Butch Jones has shown that he can compete with the top Southeastern Conference programs on the recruiting trail.
Now he just needs to turn the Volunteers into a winner on the field as well.
One day after signing what was rated as a top-five class by multiple recruiting services, Jones understands much will be expected of this group. That much was evident Thursday as Jones spoke at recruiting celebrations in packed hotel ballrooms at Memphis and Nashville before accepting an award later in the day from the Tennessee Press Association as the state's headliner of the year, given to the person or group who has generated the most positive news within the state over the previous year.
Jones appreciates the way this recruiting class has excited a fan base that has endured four consecutive losing seasons, something Tennessee hadn't experienced since 1903-06. But he also is preaching patience.
''This is a very, very good class, but everything is up to their personal growth and development,'' Jones said. ''These are 17- to 18-year-old individuals. Everyone's going to develop differently at their own pace. We'll be extremely, extremely young next year, but also very talented.''
They'll certainly be more talented after adding a class that was ranked fourth nationally by Scout and fifth by Rivals. Tennessee added two players - wide receiver Josh Malone and running back Jalen Hurd - who were rated as five-star prospects by at least one recruiting service. Their class also includes 16 other players who were labeled as four-star prospects by multiple services.
The addition of six defensive linemen and two linemen who could play either offense or defense should fortify an area where Tennessee severely lacked depth. Hurd and Malone add athleticism to a roster that was short on playmakers.
They'll also be less experienced than last year's team. Tennessee must replace all its 2013 starters on the offensive and defensive lines.
Jones said during his Signing Day press conference Wednesday that it would be unfair to put too much onto the shoulders of these incoming freshmen. He noted that ''we are not going to improve and fix all of our deficiencies in our football program in one recruiting class.''
Yet he also understands the reason there's so much excitement about these newcomers.
Many of these recruits committed before Jones had even coached a game at Tennessee. They didn't start looking at other programs while Tennessee struggled through a 5-7 season. They savored the opportunity to return Tennessee to prominence.
''These individuals wanted the responsibility, wanted that challenge of helping build Tennessee football back,'' Jones said.
Tennessee moved a giant step closer to answering that challenge Wednesday.
But the Vols still have a long way to go.