There might not be a tougher job in sports than attempting to rebuild a college football program.
College football, unlike the NFL, doesn’t have a level playing field when it comes to assembling a roster. There is no “salary cap” that spreads talent around and creates parity. Sure, there are scholarship limits, but those only help so much.
It can be tough for a program that’s been down on its luck (like the Tennessee Vols) to add elite talent when all the top tier players are signing with Alabama, Clemson and Georgia. College football is top heavy and it can be incredibly difficult for programs — even traditionally great programs — to break into the top five or six schools.
Essentially, programs have to find “hidden gems” and “diamonds in the rough” to carry the program for a few years until recruiting can catch up.
That’s basically the blueprint that Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt is using in his attempt to return Tennessee to national relevancy.
Sign some four-star players, add some high end three-star players and fill in the gaps with some players that exhibit raw, elite athletic ability.
It’s a plan that can pay major dividends for Tennessee — as long as the raw athletic talent develops properly.
Jimari Butler, a recent Vol commit from Mobile, AL, is an example of a raw player with a ton of upside that Tennessee believes they can develop into a solid defensive player. Butler is a basketball player who hadn’t played football since middle school before the 2019 season. The Alabama native, however, possesses elite speed. Butler has the potential to be a lethal pass rusher in Pruitt’s defensive scheme. At least that’s what the Vols are banking on.
Mobile OLB Jimari Butler commits to Tennessee over Nebraska, Maryland, TCU and Ole Miss.
He’s 6-4, 215 pounds and ran a 4.59 this summer. Only played one year of high school football but has over 18 sacks this season, great bend and 33-inch arms.
Raw but intriguing pickup.
— Jesse Simonton (@JesseReSimonton) November 8, 2019
Another example of Tennessee’s desire to add raw, under-the-radar talent is their pursuit of Trinity Bell. His story is almost identical to Butler’s. Bell hasn’t played football since middle school, but he has skills that translate to the gridiron. The 6-foot-7/250 lb athlete reportedly runs the 40 around 4.50 seconds. For his size, that’s elite.
UT’s coaching staff is clearly doing a good job of identifying talent.
But that’s only half the battle.
Tennessee’s staff will have to prove they can turn a raw player with upside into a productive player in the toughest conference in college football.
It’s not an easy task. But if the Vols are successful, the payoff will be a program that’s viewed as place where kids can develop at an elite level.
And that’s exactly the reputation that Pruitt wants for Tennessee.
Featured image via Kim Klement/USA Today Sports