Brick-by-brick: Tennessee talent rise has helped build the Vols
We all heard Butch Jones was going to build Tennessee football back “brick-by-brick” but what we did not count on is a good portion of those bricks being locally-made.
The line on the UT job, when you spoke to coaches or insiders, used to be this- you better be able to recruit out-of-state because there isn’t enough in-state talent to build a championship-level roster. And a good chunk of the talent in-state is in Memphis, which may as well be an out-of-state area considering its proximity (391 miles and six hours across the state on I-40) to UT.
That still holds true to a certain extent, but not as much as it once did. Certainly if Jones is going to get and keep the Vols at a championship level, he’s going to have to continue to win some out-of-state recruiting battles. But what also has to be considered is that the high schools in the state of Tennessee are producing more talent than ever and show no signs of slowing down.
The previous three recruiting cycles, we’ve seen 26 (2013), 24 (2014) and 32 (2015) prospects from the state of Tennessee out of the top 50 in that state sign with Power 5-level programs. The Class of 2016 is trending nicely in that direction, too, as there currently are 23 Power 5-level commits from the state. Looking even further ahead to the 2017 cycle, there are already nine prospects rated four stars or better by the recruiting industry (247Sports Composite rankings) and the Vols already have a pledge from elite Oak Ridge wide receiver Tee Higgins for that class.
Compare those numbers to the 2010 cycle where there were just 17 Power 5 signees and five of those were from Memphis and you can see a definite upward trend.
Make no mistake, this has been an extremely positive trend for Tennessee. A look at the Vols offensive and defensive depth charts shows 13 Volunteer State products among the top 22. Additionally, the entire depth chart at kicker, punter, holder and long-snapper is made up of Tennesseans. It was important for Jones not only for talent to be there within the state, but for he and his staff to corral their share of it. The Vols landed 23 top 50 in-state prospects in the 2013-15 cycles — the first three classes under Jones and staff.
If you are looking for a turning point where things started to trend up, look no further than the 2014 recruiting cycle when the Vols landed nine of the top 11 in-state prospects, including defensive end Derek Barnett, running back Jalen Hurd, offensive lineman Jashon Robertson and wide receiver Josh Malone. The quartet from the Nashville area has made an impact for Tennessee since the beginning.
Even in the recent history of the program, Tennessee talent hasn’t been what has driven it. Of the 33 active “NFL Vols” listed in the team’s media guide, only eight played high school football in the state and three of those are specialists (two punters and a long-snapper). So it’s a pretty significant deal when 13 of the top 22 offensive and defensive players are in-state. This hasn’t happened in Knoxville for a while because the elite talent simply hasn’t been there. During the glory years under former coach Phillip Fulmer, the Vols routinely went into Georgia and the Carolinas to land elite prospects and also reached out nationally to stock the roster.
Given that Jones inherited a tough situation talent-wise and perception-wise (three different head coaches from 2008-10, multiple non-bowl and losing seasons) from his predecessors and the immediate need to re-stock the roster, the increase in in-state talent was a godsend. It’s tough to sell a program out-of-state that hasn’t done much on the field, but within the state, where kids grow up dreaming of playing for the flagship program and parents and high school coaches have an affinity for the history and tradition, it’s not as difficult. That’s not to say it was a lay-up or to diminish the work Jones and staff have done, but in college football recruiting, proximity and home state association certainly are an advantage.
So as Tennessee continues to build, we have the opportunity to see the Vols get back in the national conversation in a way that we aren’t used to- with state of Tennessee talent. As long as the players are still there, the Vols will get their share and certainly won’t be heading back for the short-term abyss like they suffered through after the departure of Fulmer and before the arrival of Jones. That brick-by-brick foundation will remain solid for the coming years thanks to the local advantages that once were disadvantages.