Butch Jones’ success starts in his own backyard

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The state of Tennessee isn’t California; it isn’t Florida or Texas. The Volunteer State doesn’t have five-star prospects behind every tree. It’s true – in order to win at Tennessee, coaches have to recruit on a regional and national level, as opposed to just within the state. But at the same time, several star players from right in their backyard have escaped the Vols’ grasp. And Butch Jones’ first task is to make 16- and 17-year-old blue-chip prospects believe he’s the coach to put Tennessee back on the map tilting towards relevancy.

It’s an uphill task, and maybe a daunting one. But it’s not impossible, and don’t let the failures of Derek Dooley’s recruiting regime mask the in-state talent at the Vols’ disposal. Pull out a map, and draw a 200-mile radius around Knoxville. There’s Jones’ starting point and his emphasis, as it was both Phil Fulmer and Johnny Majors’ emphasis.

Remember, in-state prospects have seen Tennessee struggle through middle and high school. In fact, all they’ve seen is failure. Do you want to go to Tennessee or Alabama and Georgia? Exactly. This question was much tougher 10 years ago.

It’s been six years and four coaches since the Vols have had any kind of success on the gridiron. The average in-state prospect was 12 or 13 years old during Tennessee’s last 10-win season in 2007. So, naturally, success is fleeting and cyclical, and along with it, recruits go elsewhere. And Jones’ first objective is to debunk the struggle and put a fence around the state.

If you look at just the last five years in the state of Tennessee, the Vols have let top prospects slip through their fingers every year.

In 2008 alone, Bama pulled both Barrett Jones and Dont’a Hightower out. LSU also signed Alex Hurst, too, who went on to be a good tackle before he quit.

In 2009, Georgia landed the top two prospects in Marlon Brown and Austin Long.

And again in 2010, Tennessee lost top ten players Barry Brunetti (WVU), Kelwone Malone (Alabama), Justin Maclin (LSU), OC Brown (Southern Miss) and Ferlando Bohanna (Miss State). The state was dominated largely by Memphis-area prospects.

Along with a rich history and winning tradition, Tennessee’s geographical location can be very advantageous. And outside of Kentucky, it’s the farthest SEC school in the North to fertile states like Ohio, and it’s closest to the talent-rich area of Virginia Beach, a place the Vols must get their foot back in the door. Atlanta, Charlotte and Memphis are three areas the Vols can and must recruit better, and Atlanta and Charlotte lay within the 200-mile radius.

The dissention and domino effect started under Fulmer and continued to crumble under Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley. I’ve heard from several Tennessee high school coaches that Dooley didn’t grow or even maintain recruiting relationships.  Tennessee has also lost ground in Memphis due to Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss and even Vanderbilt getting their foot in the door. And with South Carolina’s emergence as a perennial contender, top recruits are staying home there, too. Alabama and Auburn reel in top Georgia recruits, in addition to UGA. So, it’s an uphill battle, like sharks that smell blood in the water.

Tennessee hired Butch Jones to lead them back from the abyss and back into relevancy. He and his staff are making encouraging moves, through recruiting and reconnecting with former players. Tennessee remains cautiously optimistic.

If you look at Tennessee’s 1998 championship roster, you’ll notice Jermaine Copeland, Cedrik Wilson, Jeff Hall, Travis Stephens, Eric Westmoreland and Al Wilson, among others, were all in-state prospects and the lifeblood of the championship team.

The state isn’t as talent-rich as Georgia or Florida, but in order for Jones and his staff to lead Tennessee back to prominence, he’ll have to own Tennessee: his backyard.

Photo Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

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