How to build Tennessee's recuiting

How to build Tennessee's recuiting

Photo by Steve Ahillen

Don't forget the Tar heel State

North Carolina has produced eight NFL players for UT since 1994, but the Vols may have lost a foothold in the past 10 years. With two North Carolina natives on staff and elite recruit MarQuez North committed, now is the perfect time for UT to go east.

Tennessee running backs coach Jay Graham, who grew up in Concord, N.C., came just a year too early to fall into our survey. But after rushing for 2,600 yards during three years as a Vol, he played six years in the NFL.

Now he's recruiting players from his home state to follow his footsteps. His biggest catch since being retained by new coach Butch Jones was convincing top-rated wide receiver North to choose Tennessee over his home-state Tar Heels.

Former UNC player and assistant Tommy Thigpen is the new linebackers coach, so he also will be an asset for Jones in the state.

The Vols have had seven signees from North Carolina drafted since 1994, and an eighth player who made it to the league. Only three of 29 signees have failed to letter, a good mark of stability.

"We've had really good success as it relates to the NFL in North Carolina," said UT senior associate AD David Blackburn.

Senior nose guard Daniel McCullers hopes to be the ninth player. Will North be the 10th?

Be wary of settling for leftovers in Florida

Florida rightly has a reputation for producing top talent. But competition is fierce, as virtually every school in the nation heads South for prospects. For most of the 1990s, UT recruited Florida only selectively. Since about 2005, when Florida became a more consistent part of UT's recruiting strategy, the results have been decidedly mixed.

Tennessee tight end Jason Witten  (1) scores the game-winning touchdown on a 25-yard pass reception in the sixth overtime period to defeat Arkansas 41-38 on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2002 in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee wide receiver Tony Brown (81) is at right. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

AP2002

Tennessee tight end Jason Witten (1) scores the game-winning touchdown on a 25-yard pass reception in the sixth overtime period to defeat Arkansas 41-38 on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2002 in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee wide receiver Tony Brown (81) is at right. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

In fact, most of the Vols' top Florida players came in the first decade of our review. UT's Florida signees have a low NFL-draft rate and a high washout rate, although a large group of current players (who aren't counted in the draft rate) will have a chance to change that.

The first of only two Florida players selected in the NFL draft signed in 2001 (Julian Battle). The last (Chris Hannon) was in 2002.

Worse, more than one in three Florida players fail to letter before leaving UT.

Tennessee's 2013 class currently has two commitments from Florida and could add a third. Those recruits, along with more than a dozen players already on the roster, will have a chance to change a subpar recent history.

Be flexible

When Phillip Fulmer was building his elite 1994 class, nearly 70 percent of it was made up of long-distance recruits — players from distances greater than 350 miles from Knoxville.

It was the highest percentage of national recruits in the last 20 years. Was he giving up on the local folks? Nope. In 1995, another strong class, only 27 percent of the players came from more than 350 miles away and nearly half of the class was within a 200-mile radius of UT.

The lesson: When it's a strong year for local prospects, go after them hard. When it's not, have fallback options nationally.

Bringing up national recruiting is tricky, because it seems to undercut Tennessee's commitment to local recruits. But the fact is that some of UT's greatest teams were built by strong national recruiting to far-flung places like California and New Jersey. It's part of the Vols' heritage, and it's one of the reasons both athletic director Dave Hart, coach Butch Jones and even Fulmer have talked of rebuilding the Vols' once-powerful "brand."

"Your brand gets stronger when you win, and we need to enhance our brand by winning, quite frankly," said UT senior associate AD David Blackburn. "That power T in Tennessee, when it goes places, people pay attention to that. That's never left us. It's just enhanced when you win. We're one of the few places in the country that can say our brand and our history travels well, and it's endured."

Be choosy in East Tennessee

We've all heard the refrain about the lack of Division I players in East Tennessee — and it's true, when greater Knoxville is compared to Baton Rouge or Birmingham or Atlanta.

But since 1994, Vols from East Tennessee have included eight NFL draft picks, two more NFL players and three All-SEC selections. The flip side is there also have been been a greater than average number of busts.

The precise reason for that is unclear, as it seems to go against the conventional wisdom that recruiting long-distance kids is more "risky." (By contrast, California actually has a very strong retention rate).

Coaches shouldn't take East Tennessee for granted. It's the only part of the state where the Vols should be able to pick and choose prospects without putting up the fights required in Nashville or Memphis.

Focus on retention

When Tennessee was at its best, attrition was at its lowest. For all the talk of how top teams must "process" or "run off" players annually to bring in fresh recruits, Tennessee's glory years were marked by impressive stability.

From 1994-2005, 82 percent of the players who signed with UT received at least one letter before their careers were over.

That figure has dwindled with recent coaching turnover. In a four-year span from 2006-09, 32 signees never lettered.

New coach Butch Jones has a chance to start improving it with the 2013 class. And although the 2012 group has already thinned out, the 2011 class is well represented and could form the core of Jones' first two teams at UT.

Meet in the Middle

Don't let Vanderbilt coach James Franklin get a foothold in Nashville, because Middle Tennessee is vital to UT's success.

Memphis gets most of the attention from other SEC recruiters, and understandably so. While the western corner of the state has produced the highest percentage of NFL players for UT, East Tennessee and Middle Tennessee aren't far behind.

But while Memphis is an exhausting six-hour trip, Nashville is much closer to UT's backyard, so the Vols get to wage the recruiting battles on better terms. The rise of Vanderbilt football, and the aggressive marketing and tactics of Franklin add urgency to grabbing hold of Middle Tennessee.

Although it has produced solid talent, Middle Tennessee stands out most for its reliability. In the last 20 years, only four Middle Tennessee signees have failed to letter at UT. Only North Carolina (see No. 1) is in the same neighborhood.

In 1990, the Nashville metro area had 985,000 people. In 2000, it grew to 1.231 million, surging past Memphis as the largest metro area in the state. Today, greater Nashville has 1.62 million people, and it's an important — and attainable — market for the Vols.

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About this project

News Sentinel reporter Evan Woodbery used players taken from Tennessee’s official National Signing Day releases. When a player signed more than once — for example, failed to qualify one year and re-signed the next — the latest year was counted. For determining letterman status, the News Sentinel used Tennessee’s official records. All-SEC status was for first-team selection only, also using records maintained by UT. The News Sentinel maintained separate distinctions for those who were selected in the NFL draft (74 players) and for those who played in the NFL or were members of active roster for at least one season (99 players). Active players were not used in calculating the percentage of signees drafted or in the NFL. Some states have very small sample sizes and caution should be used before drawing conclusions.

Related story:

A road map for getting back: Study shows Vols' fall from glory years

Database:

A map of Tennessee football recruiting since 1994

Evan Woodbery's blog

View a full list of charts used in this project on Evan Woodbery's blog, "Evan's Eleven"

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Comments » 5

SeaBassHauling writes:

I have been keeping up with recruiting back when all you had was a magazine and news paper write ups...! UT needs to get these players out of these certain areas....but it takes the coaches abilities to win over in these areas.... NC.,SC.,GA.,(Atlanta)area is vital and I'll throw in one more and that's VIrginia also....! Tennessee as always should be number one to start with...! Then go find them all over the country where the kid maybe interested in playing for UT...! That's the way it was built back in the 90's.....Fulmers days....! By the way Fulmer was the recruiting cordinator back in the day before he made head man...! This is the magic....the foundation you lay and this what Butch is doing right now...! Sit back and be amazed by the transformation that's coming our way....! VFL

GloryDays writes:

I too followed recruiting back in the early 90's buying out of town newspapers, Jeff Whitaker's Deep South recruiting guide, Forrest Davis Recruiting Annual, Southeast Recruiting Alliance, ect. The good old days without the internet.
I believe Butch Jones knows what he is doing and will get this thing turned around. It takes believing in what you are doing and having enthusiasm. It takes winning some games. It takes coaching players up, overachieving. Jones and his staff have to be relentless in recruiting. Then he needs to land several big time players and win a few more games and get others prospects excited about wearing Orange and this thing will take off again. Go Vols!

budd#207344 writes:

College football has changed. When you were recruiting the NC team most colleges stayed in their own back yards. Now everyone is recruiting FL, GA, SC, LA, & AL because they have seen the success of the SEC and realize that speed kills and speed is in the South. You cannot look at past years and show a "road map" to how to rebuild recruiting. You are recruiting against more schools in the South, there are even better coaches in the SEC than there were in 1994-2000, and other SEC schools are now successful (LSU,Bama,Barn) that weren't during that era. You have to have solid coaches who can take the 3 star and make them win. When you win, you will then get access to the better recruits.That is how Saban built Bama and that is how UT will have to rebuild. We have become a victim of our own success but it can happen again if the coaches can coach. That is the secret and the jury is still out.

SouthPaVol writes:

Great article, Evan! We got a couple things in common; I bleed orange and have made more PowerPoint charts for the Army than I care to remember. LOL

First, CBJ has impressed this Vol fan so far. With the deck stacked against his coaching team--by three losing seasons and a short suspense--breaking a top-30 class on NSD will be a success. If we sign Bell, and I think he's a Vol, our biggest need is a pass rusher. It's good to recruit stars, but we gotta fill the needs. Maybe some coaching genius will convert Big Dan Skipper into a DE?

It pains me terribly that the Vols are letting Davis Howell, a Knoxville receiver that set a national record for receptions, out of town without an offer. With his record and those hands of glue, I really don't care if he runs a 5.5 40 and is slower than pond scum. At 6'2", he's big enough; knows how to find an opening, and catches the ball. (Fred Biletnikoff comes to mind.) We got great receiver prospects coming in with North and Harris, maybe the best receiver class in the nation, but Howell caught over 500 passes in HS! This could be the no-star steal of the century. Give the kid an offer and make him a VFL!

SouthPaVol writes:

Checking some past rosters, noticed the '98 roster (which we all hold dear) had 35 of 81 native Tennesseans, over 43% of the roster from our home state. Good job, Phil.

Not saying that high of a percentage were starters, but several key players like our sure-footed kicker and defensive leader called Tennessee home.

I love out-of-state talent who want to be a VFL, and they have been essential to our team's success through the years. Some star players and VFLs decide to stay in K-town and are doing wonderful things in sports radio, for example. I applaud them.

But we are, however, a state institution and if all else is equal, offer the local boy and pay for his education. In a particular local case, the stats are far from equal or similar--offer CAK's Davis Howell.

No, I'm not the kid's uncle. Actually, I live in Chattanooga and never met Howell. But the national record for receptions! After losing the top receiving class in the nation, we need to reload, pronto.

Over the years, we've offered thieves, druggies, kids with failing grades, etc, playing the odds and hoping they turn around to become a team contributor.

I ask you this: How can our state university NOT sign the career receptions national record holder, who was born and raised in Knoxville?

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