KNOXVILLE - You can hear the sense of pride in Jalen Ramsey's voice.
The Brentwood Academy football star isn't just playing for himself, his family or his high school. When he signs his letter of intent to attend the school of his choice next February, the 6-foot, 185-pound athlete won't be playing for that university alone.
As one of the state of Tennessee's top 2013 recruits, Ramsey knows he's carrying another banner.
"I think Tennessee's underrated and we're overlooked," he said. "I think we can compete with any other state. We have just as good athletes, if not better, than other states. They just have to notice us, and we have to to get out and show them what we can do.
"Any chance I get, I put it all on the line because I'm better or just as good as the Georgia boys, the Texas boys or boys from any other state that always get the hype and we don't in Tennessee. We're better or just as good as them."
The 2013 class in Tennessee already has a pretty good argument. There are six players from the state in Rivals.com's top 250 overall recruits. Ramsey, Ensworth athlete Cornelius Elder and Memphis Central defensive end Frank Herron are in the top 200 of 247Sports' early rankings.
The state had 20 players sign with SEC schools in the 2012 class, and though it's early in the process the number could grow next February.
"This state, generally speaking, continues to improve, and I think that the 2013 class is another example of that," said 247Sports recruiting analyst Barton Simmons. "There's already several guys that are truly national recruits that everyone in the country wants. I think in the past in the state of Tennessee, sometimes maybe there are national recruits, but they're guys that emerge a little bit later in the process. These are guys that have been identified very early on.
"Initially 2012 looked like it was one of the best groups we've had in a while and stronger than this year's class, but I think the more we dig into this 2013 group, the more it looks like it is just as good if not better than 2012."
After a successful in-state haul of seven players in 2011, the University of Tennessee Volunteers inked just three homegrown players last month. With some potential difference makers in-state for this class, UT already has offered a dozen Tennessee players, according to Rivals and 247Sports. The Vols have a trio of in-state commitments: Bradley Central offensive lineman Austin Sanders, Lenoir City receiver Camion Patrick and Memphis White Station defensive end Jason Carr.
The 6-6, 295-pound Sanders, whom Simmons called "an elite in-state offensive lineman," pulled the trigger last August. UT didn't sign an offensive lineman in its 2012 class, so Sanders fills a need. His childhood trips to Knoxville for games made it an easy decision.
"I grew up watching them and pulling for them my whole life, so I'm really excited to get up there," Sanders told the Times Free Press last month. "I was set on Tennessee once they offered, and after meeting the coaches I believe in what Coach [Derek] Dooley is building and I can't wait to be a part of it. It's close to home so my family can come watch me, and I was telling my dad just the other day that I never dreamed I would get to play on that field."
Patrick and Carr committed during unofficial visits in late January. Since pledging, the 6-4 Patrick has received offers from Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss. Though he's six hours away, Carr has an older brother who currently attends UT, which made him somewhat familiar with the campus.
His visit, though, opened the eyes of the 6-6, 270-pound four-star prospect.
"The big point of how they go about practice and how they live their lives up there in Knoxville, that just fired me up and made me want to be a Vol," Carr said. "I'm still open about my situation right now, but I am committed to UT. Right now I bleed orange ... but I'm going to weigh my decision."
Simmons had high praise for a player who's currently ranked eighth in the state by 247Sports.
"He's about as impressive a physical specimen as you're going to see on the defensive line," he said of Carr. "[He's] a guy that I think that is just scratching his potential."
The Big Three
The Vols certainly would like to finish with all three of the state's top uncommitted recruits.
Elder is well known around Tennessee for his outstanding offensive abilities. He won the 2011 Mr. Football award in Division II-AA, and Ensworth won its second state title in a row. The 5-11, 170-pounder is 247Sports' top-rated all-purpose back, though he could play defense in college as well.
"Corn's a guy that's played a lot of basketball that doesn't quite have the prototypical football build just from a frame standpoint," Simmons said. "But he is as exciting, as explosive and as tough to defend with the ball in his hands as anyone we've seen come out of the state in a long time. What he's been able to do on Friday nights speaks for itself."
Herron's stock continues to rise, especially after he received his ninth SEC scholarship offer this week from LSU. The 6-5, 245-pounder unofficially visited UT last weekend for the Vols' basketball win against Vanderbilt, and he's not unfamiliar with the Vols. He's a friend of rising sophomore tight end Cameron Clear and freshman basketball forward Jarnell Stokes, two of Herron's former teammates at Central.
"It was awesome," Herron said of his visit. "We went to the basketball game, and the atmosphere was wild. I loved to see Jarnell produce like he did, and every time he scored it was love. He tells me he likes Tennessee a lot, and Cam was telling me the great things about Tennessee.
"[Clear and Stokes] talk to me a lot about how I would fit right in. There's 47 Central students that go to Tennessee to speak of, so it's full of Central. They said I would fit right in and that they like it. They get helped with class and they grow as a young man because they have great teammates."
Herron, who's being recruited to play the Jack linebacker position by new UT defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, is still early in his process. Once his basketball season ends, he'll take more visits, he said. His Warriors face Ooltewah in the Class AAA quarterfinals in Murfreesboro on Wednesday.
Ramsey, on the other hand, has been taking visits for almost a year. The Vols began recruiting him last summer, and he's been on campus a handful of times. He said he's also visited Auburn, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Vanderbilt and will visit Mississippi State at the end of the month.
"Tennessee of course is the hometown school," he said. "The facilities are great; they have a great coaching staff; it's in the best conference; I know a lot of players on the team. It's all real exciting at UT."
Unlike Elder, Ramsey is being recruited mostly to play defense.
"Jalen has all the measurables as far as size and speed, the combination you want out of a cornerback," Simmons said. "He has the athleticism to play cornerback and that length that's rare. He's also a lot more physical than I think people realize. He's just a very complete corner."
The Vols always will need to go outside of Tennessee to land most of their recruits, but they could nab some good players without going too far from home the next 11 months. Receivers coach Darin Hinshaw, arguably UT's top recruiter, has been given the Memphis area, and new running backs coach Jay Graham is handling the midstate. New defensive line coach John Palermo has coached all across the state in his nearly 40-year coaching career.
A solid start, along with some wins on the field next season, would mean a strong finish. Or at least that's what the Vols hope.
"I think Tennesse is off to a fantastic start, and really one of the better starts they've had in a while as far as in-state recruits," Simmons said. "These are guys that are not just foundation-builders."