TOPS IN TENNESSEE
The last decade of No. 1-rated players from the state of Tennessee, according to Rivals.com:
Offensive lineman, Nashville (Pearl-Cohn), 4 stars
Skinny: Richardson, who's taken official visits to UT, Georgia and Auburn, will decide on signing day. He was the first 2011 prospect UT coach Derek Dooley visited when he took the job.
Defensive end, Ooltewah, 4 stars
Skinny: Smith enrolled early at UT and made an impact as a reserve pass-rusher. He played in all 13 games, making 24 tackles and registering two sacks, and seems to have a bright future.
Wide receiver, Memphis (Harding Academy), 4 stars
Skinny: Brown spurned the Vols for Georgia on signing day but has yet to be a consistent threat in the Bulldogs' passing game, making just 13 catches and scoring just one touchdown in two seasons.
Offensive lineman, Memphis (Evangelical Christian School), 4 stars
Skinny: His father played basketball at Alabama, so Jones rolling with the Tide wasn't shocking. After a redshirt season, Jones started at right guard for the 2009 national-title team and appears to have an NFL future.
Linebacker, Huntingdon, 5 stars
Original college: Tennessee
Skinny: The state's last five-star player didn't live up to the ranking, as Donald could not get on the field at UT. He transferred to UT-Chattanooga, where he earned second-team All-Southern Conference honors last season at defensive end.
Tight end, Alcoa, 5 stars
Original college: Florida State
Skinny: Warren earned Freshman All-America honors at Florida State. After transferring to UT to move closer to home, Warren lasted half a season before former coach Lane Kiffin dismissed him.
Wide receiver, Nashville (Goodpasture), 5 stars
College: Southern Cal
Skinny: Rated the No. 2 prospect nationally, Turner chose to go west. He was a third-round NFL draft pick after a successful career with the Trojans.
Defensive tackle, Chattanooga (Tyner) 4 stars
Skinny: After a year at Hargrave Military Academy, Bolden signed with UT a second time in 2005. He started his junior and senior seasons and finished with 15 career tackles for loss and three sacks.
Linebacker, Jackson (Central-Merry), 4 stars
Skinny: A myriad of off-field troubles eventually ended with Brooks' dismissal from the Vols before the 2005 season, after he registered just 11 tackles in 21 career games, mostly on special teams. He went to Jackson State before returning to UT and earning his degree.
Gerald Riggs Jr.
Running back, Chattanooga (Red Bank), 5 stars
Skinny: Riggs was the No. 3 running back prospect and a top 12 recruit nationally. He ran for over 1,100 yards and UT won the SEC East his junior year, but an ankle injury against Alabama ended his senior season early.
The memory from the last day of September remains fresh in Devrin Young’s mind.
“I was in my second-period class,” the Bearden High School star running back and University of Tennessee commitment recalled earlier this week about a call he got from UT coach Derek Dooley.
“That week I had been telling my teacher I’d just been getting calls from coaches. [Dooley] called me when I was in his class. Everybody who knew about my situation was anticipating Tennessee calling me soon, so he was cool about me taking the call.
“They offered me [a scholarship] right then and there, and I was just happy.”
Young isn’t all that different from most high schools players living in Tennessee, many of whom grow up dreaming of putting on the orange jersey and playing in Neyland Stadium.
But it’s not always that simple, and UT is far from the only big-time program going after the state’s big-time prospects.
‘A lower ceiling’
George Quarles has won eight state championships and coached in two U.S. Army All-American Bowls. Maryville High School’s football coach has seen how the best players from the state stack up against the best in the Southeast and the nation.
“I’ve been in two of those all-star games, and both games we had some Tennessee guys in them and the Tennessee guys were just as good as any of the other ones,” Quarles said. “There may have the few exceptions, but I think there are a lot of really good football players in Tennessee.”
There is a perception that Tennessee doesn’t match up in quantity of high school talent with Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina or Mississippi.
“There’s some degree of validity to that,” said current Brentwood Academy and former McCallie coach Ralph Potter. “Part of it’s population base.”
But in the five recruiting classes from 2006 to ’10, 129 players from Tennessee signed with BCS conference schools, including 88 who signed with SEC schools.
The number of “high-impact” players is where the disparity between Tennessee and the other Southeastern states lies, thus creating the perception.
“If you’re talking about just numbers, kids that are capable of playing Division I football, I think that Tennessee really is one of the better states nationally and [among] the other states in the Southeast,” said Barton Simmons, a recruiting analyst for Brentwood-based 247sports.com who played at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville.
“I think where the difference is, is if you’re talking about really elite level talent, impact-type players, Tennessee doesn’t quite have the numbers of those. You can fill a roster with guys from Tennessee that I think can be Division I-A players, even SEC contributors, but if you want to get the kids that are real difference-makers, for whatever reason Tennessee has a little bit of a lower ceiling than some of the neighboring states.”
According to Rivals, Tennessee has had two five-star and 28 four-star prospects since 2006. Florida and Georgia have large built-in population advantages, but Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina — all states with fewer people than Tennessee — also consistently have produced more four- and five-star players.
Quarles and Potter have their theories as to why that’s the case.
“For a long time maybe our state was a little bit behind as far as weight room and workouts and stuff like that,” Quarles said. “I think we are catching up. Schools have done a much better job of making sure their kids are in the weight room, so they’re getting bigger, stronger and faster.
“I think that’s contributed to it. I know when I was in college [at Furman], guys that came from Georgia were doing stuff that I’d never heard of, so they were ahead of me. I played in the state of Tennessee, from a great program.”
In the last two recruiting classes alone, 22 of the 42 players who went to BCS conference schools redshirted their freshman year.
Potter cited rules, such as limits on seven-on-seven leagues during the spring and throughout the summer, that encourage students’ participation in multiple sports.
“We can start really only the first week in July,” he said. “There’s a marginal difference there, I think. I appreciate our state association making those rules that encourage multiple-sport participation. I think it’s healthier for kids, but it probably does, especially with the skill guys, it probably does hurt development to some degree.”
‘What’s best for you’
Unlike its SEC rivals, raiding other states to gets its elite game- and program-changing players has been and always will be a staple of UT recruiting.
But UT can’t ignore what’s within its own state’s borders.
“It doesn’t matter whether they’re from Chattanooga or Timbuktu,” Potter said, “the bottom line is winning on that level, so you’ve got to get players that fit your system and that you feel like have the qualities you’re going to be able to win with from an academic standpoint, a character standpoint and a physical standpoint.
“You’d like to start and scour the state and say there’s five or six guys in a good year probably that can play for us and let’s go after them. I think that’s good public relations, but at the end of the day they’ve got to win and get the people in there that can win for them.”
Added Quarles: “A Tennessee guy you would think would play a little bit harder and care a little bit more about it than somebody who wasn’t from Tennessee. I would think if you’re Tennessee, you need to keep the best players in state, and you’ve got to have a good chance of doing that.”
But it hasn’t been that easy. UT signed the state’s top prospect (Ooltewah defensive end Jacques Smith) last year, and the Vols have Nashville offensive lineman Antonio Richardson and Memphis tight end Cameron Clear, the state’s top two prospects in this class, at the top their 2011 board.
But UT also watched offensive lineman Barrett Jones, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and linebacker Chris Jordan sign with Alabama in 2008 and win a national title a season later. Receiver Golden Tate and safety Harrison Smith signed with Notre Dame in 2007.
Mike Berry signed with Auburn in 2006 and started on the Tigers’ title-winning offensive line this season. Receiver Patrick Turner, the nation’s No. 2 prospect, spurned UT for Southern Cal in 2005.
Lower-rated prospects such as Kentucky’s Randall Cobb, Miami lineman Tyler Horn, LSU lineman Alex Hurst and former Ole Miss defensive end Greg Hardy and defensive back Cassius Vaughn, have slipped through UT’s cracks.
“For each person it’s just whatever makes them happy,” Young said. “I’m sure they would like to play for Tennessee, not just because it’s in state, but because of Tennessee’s history and the benefits on the field and off the field with Tennessee.
“With each and every person, as big of an honor as it is to play for Tennessee, it’s all about where you fit in and what’s best for you.”
UT did sign the most (28) of the state’s 88 from 2006 to ’10 who signed with SEC schools. Only Vanderbilt (14), Kentucky (13), Ole Miss (12) and Alabama (eight) signed more than four.
But in the 2006-08 stretch with Philip Fulmer still coaching the Vols, 11 of the 20 in-state players who signed with UT either never made it to campus or left the program for various reasons, and three more have made minimal contributions.
“I thought the world of Coach Fulmer,” Potter said. “I thought he was a person that had the best interest of the kids at heart and enjoyed hanging out with the high school coaches. He would walk into your office and sit down and talk to you like anybody else would.
“Coach Dooley, really I haven’t gotten to meet him too much yet, but I’ve talked to him on the phone and I’ve talked to his staff and I think he’s going to be the same way. I think they have made some really good decisions about who they’ve recruited and what they’ve done, and I’m excited to see that.”
‘A tough task’
Of the 129 prospects who signed with BCS conference schools the last five years, Memphis (41) and the areas surrounding Nashville (29) and Knoxville (23) were the top producers.
But UT has signed just two players — recently graduated defensive end Chris Walker and sophomore linebacker Greg King — from that Memphis group. Georgia, Colorado, North Carolina, Texas Tech and Wake Forest all also signed two Memphis recruits in that time frame.
“That’s really surprising,” Walker said from Competitive Edge Sports in Atlanta, where he’s training for the NFL draft. “I can remember just looking back at some of the other guys that have come out of Memphis that have gone to other schools, just wishing we could get that pull back out of Memphis. We have a lot of talent in Memphis alone.”
But it’s not just SEC schools cherry-picking prospects out of Memphis: Those 41 players signed with 18 different schools.
“I think other schools are doing a really good job at recognizing that we have a lot of talent and recruiting it heavily,” said Walker, a four-star recruit who signed with UT over Alabama and LSU out of Christian Brothers in 2007.
“When they see they have a guy in Memphis, in Tennessee country, they see that they have to work a little bit harder, so I think they do that and they do it pretty well.”
Ole Miss, roughly 75 miles from Memphis, signed the most (six), and Alabama (four), LSU, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Miami (three each) all signed more than UT.
“It’s a tough task for Tennessee because those kids are considered in-state kids, considered kids that they need to get,” Simmons said. “But at the same time, those are kids that are six hours away.
“A lot of times it makes more sense [for UT] to exert a lot more effort on guys in Georgia, guys which are a lot closer by and guys that they can make a stronger push for. It’s a battle because the perception is in-state kid, you’ve got to get them. But the reality of it is those kids, while a lot of them maybe have Tennessee influences or maybe they grew up watching the Vols, they’re a long way away and that’s a tough task for Tennessee’s coaches to deal with.”
In the 2002-05 classes, UT signed 10 players out of Memphis, including David Ligon and eventual NFL draft picks Brad Cottam and Dan Williams. But UT got burned by LaRon Harris, Ruben Mayes, Darius Myers, Malcolm Rawls and Todd Cox, none of whom finished their careers with the Vols.
‘A big thing’
One of the few trends in the inexact science of college football recruiting is, regardless of the location, the big-time programs across the country sell themselves. UT is no exception.
“If you know,” Young said, “what Tennessee football is all about, even if you’re not from here, you get the sense of what’s going on around you and what’s expected of you.”
“There was something about Tennessee that was special to me,” Walker said. “All home-state stuff aside, it was just special to me.”
Special enough to get Walker, who admitted he didn’t even like the Vols growing up, to pick UT and stick with it through two tumultuous coaching changes.
“I can tell you,” he continued, “from the guys from Tennessee on our team it is a sense of pride just being able to play for the home state and playing for and representing the whole state.
“For the guys from Tennessee, it’s a big thing.”
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288.
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Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...