New Tennessee linebacker Corey Vereen is so serious, according to UT coach Butch Jones, that his poker face can be difficult to read.
That was the case during a recruiting visit to Vereen's home in Florida in December. Jones and his staff weren't sure if the meeting was going well, because they couldn't get Vereen to crack a smile.
During a lull in the conversation, Vereen's dad turned to Corey and said, "Go get it, son." As the coaches waited, Vereen went upstairs.
He returned with a guitar and started strumming 'Rocky Top.' There was little doubt that Vereen was a Vol.
Jones talks frequently of the importance of relationships in the recruiting process, but he had only two months to foster one with the 21 players who signed with the Vols as part of the 2012 recruiting class.
But judging by the funny anecdotes he shared about each and every prospect during his statewide tour last week — including plenty of embarrassing ones — Jones worked to make up for lost time.
Using the 247Sports composite ranking system, which is designed to provide a consensus of national opinion, Tennessee signed 17 three-star prospects and four four-star players.
That's not bad until you consider Georgia and Texas A&M had 14 four-star players each. LSU signed 19 four-stars. And while UT didn't sign a consensus five-star player, Ole Miss signed four and Alabama signed six.
But Jones is adamant that he doesn't worry about the star system. During his trips last week he twice mentioned watching Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones in the Super Bowl. Jones went to Lane College.
"We don't get into stars," Jones said. "We have our own rating system. Stars don't mean anything. The one thing you can't measure is individuals' hearts."
Many of Jones' stories last week revolved around character — "We're going to live it every day in our program," he said — or loyalty to UT.
Jones described the bedroom of offensive line signee Austin Sanders, which was plastered with every letter and communication he had ever received from the Vols.
Leaving the in-home visit, offensive line coach Don Mahoney called Jones and said, "Hey Coach, I think he's going to stick to his commitment."
Then there was receiver signee Paul Harris from Maryland. According to Jones, there were two posters hanging in his bedroom — one of the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation's top college receiver, and one of the Heisman Trophy.
Every night, Jones said, Harris would recite the Heisman mission statement that includes the words, "Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work."
Receivers coach Zach Azzanni, when told by Harris that he wanted to win the Biletnikoff, replied, "Whoa, slow down. Let's work on getting you to class on time."
Some of the stories may have been embellished, some of the one-liners polished a bit to get maximum laughs from the crowd. And some of the assertions — like the one that quarterback signee Riley Ferguson has lost only two games in his life dating to Pop Warner ball — are difficult to verify.
But the quickly forged relationships seemed genuine, and Jones said doing that was a team effort.
He credited coaches' wives, most of whom commuted weekly to Knoxville to help host recruits' families on weekends.
"Our wives were recruiting every weekend, helping to build relationships with the recruits' mothers," Jones said.
It was one thing to convince players like Vereen and Sanders, who had been committed to Tennessee for ages. But luring players who had committed elsewhere was another story.
"Now you're trying to undo a year or two of relationships in 31 days," Jones said. "That's why I think our staff and wives are so associated with our football program and did a fantastic job. It's not just the coaches. It's a community. It's a fan-base. You'd be amazed at the amount of individuals with parents who will come a day early and they just walk around the town. They'll walk in and ask directions at a gas station. The way our fans and Knoxville greet recruits is very special and unique to Knoxville. The fan base and the people in this area did a great job."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.
FIVE SIGNEES MOST LIKELY TO MAKE AN IMPACT IN YEAR 1
1. Riyahd Jones, CB: Junior college prospects are usually a good bet for making a quick impact, as they’re more mentally prepared and physically ready than new recruits. Jones has an added advantage by enrolling in January.
2. MarQuez North, WR: Even if North is a bit raw and in need of polishing before he’s ready to wow the SEC, UT’s lack of depth at receiver will give him an immediate opportunity.
3. Jason Carr, DE: It’s tough to be an impact freshman on the line, but Carr has the body to work his way into the rotation quickly and aim for a starting role in 2014.
4. Jabo Lee, RB: This may seem an odd choice, because Lee was a last-minute addition to the class, but the field is wide open behind Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal. Someone — whether it’s Lee or another young back — will get a chance to be next in line.
5. Woody Quinn, TE: Sure he’s best known for being a converted volleyball player, but coaches love Quinn. He has an SEC-ready frame and there will be ample opportunities for tight ends in Jones’ new offense.