MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- As the final Mr. Football award winner left the Embassy Suites Hotel & Conference Center late Monday afternoon, one thing was clear: What a difference a year and a lot of hustle can make in the world of recruiting.
Last year at the same event, only one of the 33 Mr. Football finalists had committed to or even listed the University of Tennessee as one of their top choices. That included the state's only five-star prospect, Jalen Ramsey, who wound up signing with Florida State.
According to those players and their coaches, when asked at the time why there was such a lack of interest in the state university's program, they cited a lack of communication by former coach Derek Dooley and staff.
But Monday five members of first-year UT coach Butch Jones' staff were in attendance, supporting the four four-star players and Mr. Football finalists already committed to the Volunteers and making a late push for two other highly sought in-state prospects. They also were putting in early work toward two junior prospects who already hold UT offers.
Vols assistants Zach Azzanni, Mark Elder, Willie Martinez, Steve Stripling and Tommy Thigpen all made sure they were visible in congratulating 2014 commitments Todd Kelly Jr. (Knoxville Webb) and Derek Barnett (Brentwood Academy) as well as 2015 commits Zach Stewart (Coalfield) and Jack Jones (Oakland). And of course, they wanted to ensure that five-star receiver Josh Malone of Station Camp and four-star defensive lineman Charles Mosley of Brighton knew they were in attendance.
Malone will announce his commitment Wednesday, choosing among UT, Clemson, Florida State and Georgia, but all indications are that it will come down to the Vols and Clemson. Mosley will make his public commitment Friday and said Monday afternoon that UT was his top choice.
Clemson also had two assistants in attendance.
"It's a pretty hectic week for me, but I feel blessed to be in this position," the 6-foot-4, 190-pound Malone said as he clutched his Class AAA Mr. Football back of the year award. According to Malone, Jones and Thigpen have been recruiting him the most and he admitted the relationship with the UT staff has grown "pretty close" through the process.
"I noticed the coaches here from a couple of the schools I'm looking at, and I thought that was pretty special to send them here today," Malone said. "It says a lot about them as a staff.
"I believe I will have my mind made up by Tuesday morning and then just keep it to myself all day and make sure I feel good about it before I announce on Wednesday."
Mosley finished runner-up to Jones for Class AAA lineman of the year, and Webb junior linebacker Brant Mitchell, Division II-A lineman of the year, and Maryville junior defensive end Dylan Jackson, runner up for Class AAA lineman, have offers from the Vols.
Each of the four uncommitted prospects admitted they have been impressed so far by the UT staff's hustle and persistence.
The four current UT commitments present Monday said they have been helping their future coaches by doing a lot of "peer recruiting" through texts and twitter.
"I talked to both those guys who are still undecided today," Barnett said. "It's their decision, but I wanted to check in on them and let them know what a family unit we've got in this class and how much we'd like them to be a part of it.
"I think anybody can see how hard this staff works and how much they care about being there to support the guys who are going to play for them. I think it's a pretty special class already, but if we can add either of them or both of them, that would be huge."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.