KNOXVILLE -- One back yard has never been enough for the University of Tennessee.
The Volunteers always have had to go beyond their state's borders in their recruiting efforts, but recently the state of Georgia has been a primary target for UT, and coach Derek Dooley and his staff will continue to hit the recruiting trail hard there.
"It's like your back yard," said Lance Thompson, UT's defensive line coach and one of the Vols' primary Georgia recruiters. "It's three hours away, the Atlanta metropolitan area. I think everybody recruits in a circle of three to five hours around their campus. That encompasses a lot of Georgia."
As simple as it sounds, the Vols signed just 12 players from Georgia in a seven-year stretch from 2002 to 2008. Since then, however, UT has grabbed 18 players from their neighbors, including seven signees in each of the past two classes. Five Georgians have made public commitments to the Vols' 2012 class.
But UT is not the only Southeastern Conference school that reaches its recruiting hands into Georgia's rich talent pool. South Carolina (30), Auburn (22) and Kentucky (21) have signed more Georgia players than UT (20) in the last four years. The home-state Bulldogs signed 58 Peach State players in that stretch, and Georgia Tech signed 47.
Georgia's population of nearly 10 million is behind only Florida in the Southeast, and the 12 SEC schools have taken advantage by signing 217 Georgia prospects in the last four signing classes.
"As far as per capita number of players who are major D-I guys, you're probably not going to find anywhere else," said Terry Joseph, UT's defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator. "I think guys in Georgia like playing in the SEC. There's only one SEC school in Georgia, so the rest of us can dip in there and get guys who are attractive to us as a players. We're going to go in there, and we'll fight with the rest of them."
The Bulldogs landed seven of Rivals.com's top 10 in-state recruits in 2011, but the Vols still grabbed linebacker A.J. Johnson and defensive backs Brian Randolph and Justin Coleman, three players who have started on defense this season. UT's haul two years ago brought in star receiver Da'Rick Rogers and Ja'Wuan James, who's started every game of his career at right tackle.
The Vols host Georgia on Saturday night, and the outcome could grab the eyes of seniors, juniors and sophomores in Georgia high schools. It certainly caught James' attention two years ago, when he saw UT hammer Georgia 45-19 on his official visit to Knoxville.
"It definitely helped," said James, who committed to UT a month later. "When you're in Georgia, a lot of people expect you to go to Georgia -- maybe the fans and coaches and stuff like that. I just wanted to venture off and go to the best school that I feel like was the best fit for me, and that was Tennessee."
UT's 41-14 blowout loss in Athens last year didn't stop the Vols from taking seven prospects from Georgia, so the importance of a single game swaying a handful of recruits is overstated.
"If signing day was Oct. 21, it'd have huge, huge importance," Joseph said. "But it's not, so I think in the next month or two months after the game it's not really a big deal what's going to happen on Saturday. As we get down to February, it kind of wears off a little bit."
That's not to say whichever side does win won't remind prospects of it in head-to-head battles for players.
"Competition and how your team does, I think that certainly affects kids mentality-wise, but I think with certain kids nowadays it's about their opportunity to play," Thompson said. "You let the kid decide, 'Where do you think you've got the quickest opportunity to play?'
"All freshmen think they're going to come in as freshmen and rock the world. We know that's not necessarily the case unless you're an elite player, but I think certainly when you play a rival team, especially a team like Georgia where recruiting's really important for us, it's important to go out and compete with those guys."
In reality, though, every game and every win has an effect on recruiting, and different prospects choose different schools for different reasons. Thompson did note the 2009 win and the landing of Rogers, James and Rajion Neal.
"Is that [game] the reason they came? I don't know," he said. "Did that have a bearing? I think it probably had a little bearing to some degree. In recruiting you sell a number of things. You sell the program; you sell the academics; you sell the environment in the school, the history and the tradition. I think at the end of the day, there's a little bit of everything that matters.
"We've got a great program; we've got a great product; we've got great support. We've got to make strides."
UT already has made plenty of strides in its Georgia recruiting, and that's likely going to continue. The Vols have had some successful players out of Georgia in their history, from stars Eric Berry, Jamal Lewis and Dale Carter to offensive guards Cosey Coleman and Mercedes Hamilton and defensive back Fred White, a trio of starters on the 1998 national championship team.
Add in Dooley's ties to the state -- he went to high school in Athens and his father, Vince, was a longtime Bulldogs coach and athletic director -- and the Vols' emphasis on Georgia makes perfect sense.
"It's close, and they have a lot of great players," Joseph said. "They have enough to go around for everybody. There's just so many schools there so you can get bang for your buck when you send coaches in there. [In] the history of Tennessee, when we've played pretty good ball, we had a roster loaded with some Georgia guys. We like to hit that state. We're going to be there."
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 ...