sports (2007-07)

UT attracts attention with its in-state football recruits

Real Volunteers

by Tony Basilio

The state's high school coaches have usually held to a simple premise. If you recruit them, they will come. In other words, if the University of Tennessee recruited their own state with vigor and in great numbers, it would attract other major colleges offering scholarships for more players in our state. When you peek at UT's recently signed recruiting haul of '07, it's not a great surprise that they score very high nationally. What is surprising is the number of players that hail from the Volunteer State. Volunteers coming from the Volunteer State in a year when more in-state prospects signed Division 1 scholarships than perhaps any other year in the state's history. Makes you wonder if those coaches had a point all along.

It's one thing for Tennessee to recruit the top three or four players in Tennessee. They do that every year. It's another thing for the Vols to be so involved with so many players from the state. What's more, Coach Fulmer and staff were more active locally in recruiting than ever in his tenure.

Sources near the program told me that Fulmer, at the urging of current offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, had decided to change philosophy on recruiting last spring. Instead of searching out and or signing a plethora of ballyhooed national prospects, Tennessee would concentrate on targeting prospects in our state as its top priority while setting sights on a handful of national prospects. The result: a consensus top-five haul!

One count has the state's high school seniors signing 51 Division 1 letters of intent. Those are Alabama numbers, not Tennessee's. The recruiterazzi (those who make their living watching every move made by big-time schoolboy football players) always maintained that the state couldn't possibly produce that many Division 1 players. After all, we've all been led to believe that Tennessee didn't have the population for that kind of football depth.

To UT's credit, it didn't just recruit the cream of the crop (players who get assigned four and five stars by the noble recruiterazzi) in the state. Tennessee actually took a couple of in-staters early that had some in the Vol nation convinced that UT, on the heels of a 5-6 season compounded with '06's lowly regarded class, had lost its mojo on the recruiting circuit. The naysayers charged that Tennessee had lost its street cred. Why else would Tennessee take commitments early from three-star players like Maryville's Tyler Maples, Loudon's Josh Hawkins, Austin East's Anthony Anderson and Fulton's Dennis Rogan? None of those guys are top-100 players according to the recruiterazzi. Not even close! Still, UT's coaches stuck to their guns when those who subscribe to various websites coordinated by the recruiterazzi showed indignation.

The result? D-1 coaches came into the state to get in on the action. If UT is taking those guys close to home, what about guys from Powell, like John Bruhin (Marshall) and Jared McGaha (Michigan State)? Have the high school coaches in the state been right all along? Does a little bit of love from the Vols on the recruiting trail lead to further opportunities for the state's high school players?

All of a sudden area teams had all kinds of players all over the radar. Catholic's TJ Franklin blocked for the celebrated four-star weapon Harrison Smith while opening up a full ride from the University of Cincinnati. It couldn't have hurt Franklin to be hooked to a player of Smith's prominence. That Smith ended up being coveted by everyone under the sun before ultimately choosing Notre Dame over Tennessee only shed more light on our area.

In all honesty, a guy with Smith's physical skills and ability would've ended up at a big-time school with or without Tennessee's decision to focus on more local and in-state players. He was, after all, the most celebrated local football talent since LeRoy Thompson 20 years before at Austin East.

So at the end of it all, did Tennessee's decision to hit the state harder lead to a greater influx of recruiting activity from other Division 1 recruiters? It's a tough call, but one thing is certain. With the change in philosophy, this class of in-state signees will be more heavily scrutinized then their much more celebrated and thus decorated peers in this UT recruiting class. Josh Hawkins, who comes to UT with only a three-star rating from Rivals.com (the kings of the recruiterazzi), knows that less highly regarded local guys like him come to campus with much scrutiny. "It's a real motivation for me," Hawkins said. "I know people are going to look at me and ask 'does he really belong?' I plan on going out there next summer and proving that I can do it at this level."

Can and will Tennessee continue to do it at this level? That is, to recruit heavily the state of Tennessee? And, if it does, will we see another scholarship bonanza for the state's high school football players? If '07 is any indication, it seems that if UT recruits them, out-of-state coaches will come!

Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.