KNOXVILLE-Lance Thompson has spent more than eight years of his coaching career recruiting in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference.
Tennessee's defensive line coach, who earlier worked at LSU and Alabama, has been through countless evaluations, visits and camps, and he's seen how recruiting has evolved over the last few years.
"Summer camps are the No. 1 thing in recruiting now," he said recently, noting that they give prospects "a chance to see what you've got infrastructure-wise and meet your people. Also it's a chance, I tell them you're coming to evaluate us just like we're evaluating you."
The Volunteers' series of summer camps begins today with one for offensive and defensive linemen and continues with a four-day skills position camp that runs through Wednesday. UT also has a one-day camp for kickers, punters and long snappers next weekend and another camp for high school players scheduled for July 18-20.
Camps are important opportunities for potential recruits to see what schools can offer, and the Vols' coaches emphasize getting prospects to make multiple unofficial visits to campus. Tennessee used just 40 official visits to sign 28 players in its 2011 signing class.
But the camps are just as significant for the coaches, who get to see players in person for continued evaluation.
"They're very important," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said.
"You try to get all the good players in there so you can make sure you're picking the right one," Chaney added. "That's the key to the drill. You find out some of the suspect kids coming up are a little bit better than you thought; you find out some of the prospect guys you bring up weren't quite as good as you thought. It's just another step along the evaluation process."
UT had good success with its camps last summer. Defensive end Jordan Williams, defensive lineman Trevarris Saulsberry and running back Tom Smith were among the players who participated and ultimately signed with the Vols. Saulsberry earned his scholarship offer with his camp performance.
In addition to continuing the process of building relationships with recruits, coaches also can see how players handle a competitive atmosphere and the pressure to perform well on top of evaluating raw abilities and skills.
"You watch how they work - how much they like football," Thompson said. "A lot of these kids just think it's fun. They think it's just neat. They don't realize it's hard. We put a lot of weight on what our own players tell us."
The Vols have two commitments for next season at this point, just as they did last season, but nine players pledged to UT during June, July and August of last year.
"It's usually a good chance to meet their parents. Usually they bring them up," Chaney said, "so it's a lot of fun."