On Wednesday morning, Washington, D.C., cornerback prospect D’Andre Payne tweeted to the world that he was committing to the Tennessee Vols.
“Damn it feels good to be a Vol,” he wrote.
In making his announcement on social media, Payne was far from unique. In fact, among players who forgo hat-on-the-table news conferences, a simple Twitter announcement is quickly becoming standard.
But when Payne pledged to sign with UT, he joined a group of six other commitments who are using Twitter for more than talk about cars, girlfriends, football or other teenage fare.
With the skill of seasoned marketing gurus, potential members of UT’s 2014 signing class have been aggressively touting the Vols’ rebirth under new coach Butch Jones and his staff. More importantly, they’ve been active in reaching out to other prospects, essentially serving as a de facto arm of Tennessee’s football staff.
Verbal commitments are nonbinding and prospects won’t formally sign with UT or any school for another 10 months. But as free-agent high school students, prospects are also free from many of the restrictions that encumber staff members. And coaches are thrilled when recruits are active in recruiting.
“It’s a paramount,” said UT receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Zach Azzanni. “We talk to our kids about being a player-coached team rather than a coach-coached team. It’s the same thing with recruits. You’d rather have the recruits recruit each other than the coaches. They’ll listen to each other more than they’ll listen to coaches.”
The Twitter offensive began with Vic Wharton, who committed to the Vols on Christmas Day 2012, not long after Jones was hired, and quickly explained his philosophy.
“There is no reason to wait around to commit if you commit now you can help recruit and make sure you have the number 1 class in the country!” he
Since then, the Nashville native has forged relationships with future classmates online and in person. And now he’s got others in on the job.
One of the first to congratulate Payne on his commitment was five-star running back prospect Jalen Hurd, who has been equally active online. “We are building this legendary class,” Hurd wrote. “LETSSS Goooo!!!” Another commitment, Knoxville native Todd Kelly Jr., has taken it a step further, claiming the @UTLegendClass Twitter handle (so called because of the many players like Kelly who have family links to UT) to help coordinate the online efforts.
“Coach Jones always tells me to just keep recruiting,” Wharton said in an interview with News Sentinel partner GoVols247 last month. “He sees what a wonderful job I’m doing.”
While coaches love when recruits use social media to lure future teammates, the lines become fuzzier when current players get involved.
Todd Dooley, UT’s assistant athletic director for compliance, said the NCAA has largely made its peace with social media as communications tool like text messaging or email.
“I think you would see that’s how that age group communicates now, through Twitter and social networks,” Dooley said.
NCAA rules on social media have been crafted through interpretations rather than specific legislation, so the line between what is permissible and what is forbidden is not always clear.
Take senior defensive back Byron Moore, one of the team’s most popular Twitter personalities. An online humorist who briefly declared himself UT’s “interim head coach” last December and now brags of his undefeated coaching record, Moore often joins Wharton and Kelly in drumming up recruiting enthusiasm online.
On April 1, Moore tweeted to “Vol nation,” that they should go to Payne’s Twitter account to follow him and “show him some love.” Moore sometimes fields questions from fans about recruiting and seems to revel in his part in building the 2014 class.
When Twitter was in its infancy, a university might have reported a secondary NCAA violation if a current player mentioned an unsigned recruit by name. But Dooley said the standard is no longer so rigid. Players and recruits are allowed to interact freely via text or chat, which is increasingly indistinguishable from social media. If the tweet is initiated by the player and not directed by the football staff, it’s generally OK, Dooley said.
There are instances that require more caution. Dooley said he was uncomfortable with Moore’s name being attached to the @UTLegendClass Twitter handle. Shortly after the News Sentinel asked about it, Moore’s name disappeared from the description, which now lists only Kelly. UT may be taking other steps to reign in overzealous fans who imply an official connection to the university. The @RECRUITINGUT Twitter handle, which was not affiliated with UT’s football staff, has been suspended by Twitter.
Problems like that exist everywhere fans are passionate about football — not just at UT. And the notion that fans should refrain from interacting with prospects seems almost quaint in the Internet age.
By the time an elite prospect signs with a school, he will have been bombarded with messages — good and bad — from dozens of fan bases. On Twitter, where real identities can be slippery, monitoring millions of messages is nearly impossible task.
“If you’ve got any ideas,” Dooley said, “I’m all ears.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.