Vols Need Big Year To Boost Recruiting

Phillip Fulmer

Tennessee's annual quest for the best of this nation's high school football talent is highly successful, despite the fact the Vols are continually conducting an uphill battle against the wind and an array of intrinsic obstacles.

A simpler way to put it: It's like playing three out of every four games away from home and still finishing among the nation's top 10 at the end of the season. This season it would be like playing nine road games with three in Knoxville.

Add this to the equation: Instead of playing one time against Miami you compete against the Hurricanes for nearly half of the prospects you pursue. Miami and Tennessee just happen to be a couple of schools that prize speed first in football talent as a platform for their programs and, consequently, chase a lot of the same prospects. In UT's Class of 2003 six players turned down offers from Miami to sign with the Vols.

When Tennessee isn't fighting Miami for the fastest prospects, it's going head to head with the most powerful teams in college football from the eastern seaboard to the west coast and all points in between for the highest ranked players.

Undoubtedly, the Volunteers have a lot to recruit to including a rich tradition, state-of-the-art facilities, a vibrant fan base and a game day experience that is second to none. But the Vols rarely have a home field recruiting advantage and must work hard to simply identify and retain the top talent in the Volunteer State.

Last September, Tennessee had fewer in-state prospects listed on The Insiders top 300 than any other member state in the SEC, including both Kentucky and Arkansas. And yet the Vols still managed to sign six players from Tennessee including several whose ranking took a dramatic upsurge over the course of their senior seasons; players like 6-8 tight end Brad Cottam, multipurpose back Antonio Gaines and premier punter Britton Colquitt.

Tennessee also fought off a plethora of football powers for those in-state players that weren't a secret like Steven Jones and Daniel Brooks. Chattanooga wide receiver Adarius Bowman was lured away by North Carolina, but otherwise UT made a clean sweep of the top home state prospects.Georgia and Florida. The Bulldogs signed 20 of their 23 prospects in the Class of 2003 from Georgia while the Gators signed 17 of their 27 signees from Florida. Combined that's 37 of 50 prospects from in-state schools or 74 percent. By comparison, the Vols signed just 27 percent of their of their 2003 prospects from Tennessee. What's more, both the Bulldogs and Gators finished with top five recruiting classes nationally. So neither is by any means settling for backyard talent over better players located across state lines.

And it doesn't end there. Kentucky signed 12 players from the Blue Grass State while South Carolina signed 14 from the Palmetto State. In the West Division LSU, whose recruiting class was rated first or second in the nation by most services, signed 15 prospects from Louisiana.

The only SEC team that signed fewer in-state prospects than Tennessee was Vanderbilt with three. Obviously, Vanderbilt is not a school that you want to be included with when it comes to signing football talent. But the Vols are able to annually land top 10 classes by getting the best talent in Tennessee as well as targeting high profile prospects in border states, and competing for many of the best players nationally. Last season they were able to get two prospects each from Georgia, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Alabama. They signed three from South Carolina (two of whom qualified) and one each from New Jersey and Kentucky.

Oddly enough, traditional Tennessee hunting grounds like North Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, California and Ohio yielded not a single prospect to the Vols coffers. Yet even with those shutouts, Tennessee was able to cobble together a quality class thanks to several signing day surprises that included All Americans: Eric Young of South Carolina, Turk McBride of New Jersey, Bret Smith of Arkansas, Aaron Sears of Alabama and Robert Meachem of Oklahoma.

Generally speaking it's tougher to recruit out of state if the state's home university, or universities, are perennial powers or programs on the rise, as is currently the case in Virginia and North Carolina. With Georgia back on top, the Bulldogs are getting the lion's share of premier prospects from the Peach State as is LSU in Louisiana. The competition is always intense for talent in Alabama especially now with Auburn on the rise. Mississippi State and Ole Miss are doing a better job of holding onto prospects from the Magnolia State. Getting players from Florida means battling the Gators, Canes and Seminoles which is always a high-risk proposition.

Another prevailing trend in recruiting is the post 9-11 impact which has seemed to keep prospects closer to home. Whether that trend continues probably depends on how effective the war on terrorism goes, but it's something else to keep an eye on when calculating UT's recruiting success, particularly at it concerns prospects in other regions of the country.

It appears this year's challenge will be at least as difficult as last year's. The current Insiders list of top 100 players features only one from Tennessee — defensive tackle Demonte Bolden of Chattanooga. He's also the only prospect from the Volunteer State mentioned in Athlon's list of the top 180 prospects nationally. Finally Bolden is also the only prospect from Tennessee listed in Sporting News top 100 players nationally. By comparison Florida has 14 on in that same top 100 while Georgia has eight.

However, Tennessee is interested in a number of in-state prospects and have already committed two, one of which is Bolden. The Vols will probably end up committing as many players from Tennessee as they did last year. It's critical to maintain a base of in-state talent at Tennessee because these are the players that grew up dreaming of playing for the Vols and they give UT an emotional perspective that is invaluable to establishing an elevated level of intensity.

Unfortunately, Tennessee will usually have to depend on getting 70 percent of its prospects from out of state in order to compete for conference and national championships. The key to landing high-caliber talent from other states is the success of the Vols on the field. Tradition is an advantage as are fine facilities, but the best players want to play for the best programs and often their knowledge of college football history only goes back five years.

That also happens to be the last time Tennessee won an SEC and National Championship. Most of the Class of 2004 were in the seventh grade when UT won the first BCS title back in 1998. The residual benefits of that national championship are virtually exhausted in terms of how it impacts recruiting.

That's why this year's comeback effort is so vital to the program not only for the present but for the future.

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