KNOXVILLE – There’s been a familiar refrain from the last few head coaches to pass through the football complex in Knoxville.
To win at Tennessee, you must recruit nationally, but you must also start by locking down the top in-state talent.
Lane Kiffin said he was going to build a fence around the state before he got a plane and flew over it on his way to Southern California. Derek Dooley was certainly successful in spots, but he was also criticized for his overall lack of effort in the area of building connections at high schools that pay off in the future.
Now it’s Butch Jones’ turn. The Michigan native might not come in with any direct ties to Tennessee, but that didn’t stop him from saying the familiar company line at his introductory press conference in December.
“Let me make no mistake that we are going to win first and foremost with the great state of Tennessee,” he said. “We have tremendous high school coaches in this state. We are the state institution and we will own our state.
“We are going to be at every high in the state and our players are going to understand what is to wear the power T, they're going to understand what it is to represent their home institution. I take great pride in that.”
With just under a month before signing day (Feb. 6), Jones is trying to make his promise stick. So far, there are reasons for Tennessee fans to be optimistic. There’s still much work to be done, though.
Jones has solidified the commitments of four in-state players who were already pledged to the Vols: Austin Sanders (Cleveland), Brett Kendrick (Knoxville), Jalen Reeves-Maybin (Clarksville) and Josh Smith (Knoxville). Camion Patrick of Knoxville, a former Tennessee commitment, recently opted to sign with a junior college because of academic concerns.
Defensive end Jason Carr of Memphis is still committed to the Vols, though Jones still has work to do to assure that he will sign with Tennessee in February.
Jones has done more than retain in-state commitments already in place, though. He added a commitment from defensive back Malik Foreman, who flipped to UT after previously committing to Vanderbilt. Foreman, a Kingsport native, said he sees an emphasis on in-state players from Jones.
“That’s the first thing he said to us,” Foreman said of Jones. “He said he was going to get all the good players from the state because they’ll play with the passion that you need to at Tennessee.
“[Playing for his in-state school] means a lot. Everybody down here is a Tennessee Vols fan, and that’s something I’m going to love.”
Jones has a good start in the state. But will that be enough? Tennessee currently holds a commitment from three of the top 10 prospecst in the state (per Rivals.com rankings). Not bad, but none of those three are in the top five. The Vols are still battling for the top two, defensive back Jalen Ramsey (Nashville) and defensive end Frank Herron (Memphis), but they have pledged to Southern California and LSU, respectively.
It’s been a mixed bag for Tennessee’s in-state recruiting in recent history. It has landed five of the last 10 top prospects from the state. On average, the Vols have landed 3.5 of the top 10 in-state players over the last 10 recruiting classes. That’s good. Not dominant, though.
Of course, recruiting services are just a guide, not the final authority on if a player will pan out. Missing out on 2008’s top in-state player, Barrett Jones, who just helped lead Alabama to its third title in four years, was costly. Landing top Tennessee prospects such as Chris Donald (2007) did little to help the program.
But few would deny that regularly landing the top prospects in the state would help boost Tennessee out of its recent struggles. That’ll be Jones’ task.
It might be too late to grab the top players for 2013, but the 2014 crop looks to be perhaps even more impressive. The Vols already hold a commitment from four-star athlete Vic Wharton out of Nashville. They are in a strong position with Knoxville defensive back Todd Kelly, also ranked as a four-star prospect.
Jones’ plan is to assign every staff member a portion of the state to keep up with. The Tennessee coaches are trying to build relationships that they hope will turn into commitments, who will then become the foundation of what Jones builds in Knoxville.
"I think it's a great idea,” former Vol and current running backs coach Jay Graham said. “Just to make sure we cover the state as well as we possibly can. Every coach in this state should have a great relationship with the University of Tennessee.”
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga