Forty-eight hours before Tennessee was embarrassed at Neyland Stadium by Georgia, Cade Mays led Knoxville Catholic to a dominating win over Rhea County 12 miles down the road. Mays, a five-star recruit and the 15th-ranked player in the 2018 class, is the crown jewel of Butch Jones' recruiting class and one of many highly ranked players the fifth-year coach has convinced the Vols are headed in the right direction.
Jones is 6-17 against AP top 25 teams since arriving at Tennessee in 2013 — and just 14-20 in the SEC. He hasn't been able to run with the top teams on the field but he can run against anyone in recruiting circles. Excluding his first class, which was finalized just weeks after taking the job in December 2012, three of Jones' five classes have been ranked in the top 10 nationally, including a 2018 group ranks sixth nationally and first in the SEC.
Mays is their lone five-star commit but he's one of 10 high school prospects ranked among 247Sports' top 300 players. Six of them are from Tennessee, where Jones has secured commitments from six of the nine players they've offered in the class. They've landed 20 four- or five-star in-state recruits since 2014.
“I took it upon myself to reach out to these in-state guys and let them see all these SEC teams are winning with kids in their home state,” Mays told Rivals in mid-September. “That’s something Tennessee has been missing the last few years, and coach [Butch] Jones has done a great job of getting in-state kids the last few years. This year, I think, is our strongest year.”
While strong recruiting classes occasionally allow hot seat coaches to retain their job, has Jones run out of talent-developing opportunities?
Tennessee had the seventh-ranked class nationally in 2014 (fifth in the SEC) and fourth-ranked in 2015 (second in the SEC). Many of the highly ranked players from those classes — Jalen Hurd, Josh Malone, Derek Barnett — helped deliver back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2015 and 2016 for the first time since 2006-07. But many others — Kahlil McKenzie, Preston Williams, Daniel Helm — have not been big-time difference-makers (for a variety of reasons) and have not given Tennessee enough talent depth to emerge from a weak SEC East and compete for playoff spots.
As athletics director John Currie and other key stakeholders weigh Jones' future, how much will they consider his recruiting prowess, if at all?