UT Vols coach Butch Jones backing up pledge to 'own our state'

UT Vols coach Butch Jones backing up pledge to 'own our state'

February 5th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

KNOXVILLE - Nearly 14 months ago, Butch Jones stood before a throng of people inside the spacious locker room at Neyland Stadium and delivered a number of declarations regarding how he would revamp Tennessee's ailing football program.

One particular statement required a firmer tone in the voice of the Volunteers' new coach, hired earlier that December Friday from Cincinnati.

"Let me make no mistake about it: We are going to win first and foremost with the great state of Tennessee," Jones said. "We have tremendous high school coaches in the state, we are the state institution and we will own our state. We're going to be in every high school in this state, and our players are going to understand what it is to wear the power 'T.'

"They're going to understand what it means to represent their home institution, and I take great pride in that."

Jones and his staff certainly backed up those words.

If Ensworth defensive Michael Sawyers signs with the Vols today, Tennessee's 2014 recruiting class would include eight of the top 10-ranked players in the state, according to 247Sports.com's rankings.

The Vols' in-state haul includes the top two players in Tennessee: tailback Jalen Hurd and receiver Josh Malone, two dynamic skill players who enrolled last month.

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones watches from the sidelines.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

"Tennessee's dominated in-state this year, and what a year to dominate," 247Sports national recruiting analyst Barton Simmons said Tuesday. "It's one thing to say you're going to put a wall around the state and get all the big kids, and it's another thing to do it, and Tennessee really has just knocked it out of the park this cycle.

"This is probably as talented of a year as we've seen in a long, long time. When you consider that Vanderbilt has been surging some, and most of the talent this year was in Middle Tennessee, for Tennessee to kind of sweep the area the way they did, I think it speaks volumes about the job that Butch Jones is doing on the recruiting trail."

In addition to Hurd and Malone, both five-star prospects according to Rivals.com, Tennessee landed Knoxville Webb safety Todd Kelly, Brentwood Academy defensive end Derek Barnett and Independence safety RaShaan Gaulden, a trio of consensus four-star prospects.

Rounding out the Vols' in-state haul is a pair of two-way linemen in Brighton's Charles Mosley and Montgomery Bell Academy's Jashon Robertson, Independence athlete Vic Wharton and Marshall County kicker Aaron Medley.

The addition of Sawyers, another consensus four-star prospect, would give Tennessee 10 in-state signees in this class, which would be the most since the Vols signed 11 Tennesseans in a heralded 2007 class.

The state's recruiting profile has improved in recent years, and the most fertile recruiting ground within the state has shifted east from Memphis to the midstate area.

According to 247Sports' rankings, nine of the top 11 players in Tennessee this year are from the Nashville or Murfreesboro areas. Using Rivals' rankings, only two players in the state's top 10 -- Kelly and North Carolina-bound Memphis University School receiver Devin Perry -- are from somewhere other than the midstate.

Under its previous coaching regime, Tennessee failed to make the midstate as big a priority as it needed to be, but Jones and his staff, particularly linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, the assistant assigned to the area, have thrived there.

"I think it's been a long time coming," Simmons said. "It's been slowly building, and now it's bubbling up and taking things to the next level. The growth in Murfreesboro, the rise of Ensworth, a lot of players coming out recently are Titans children or have connections to the Tennessee Titans -- there's a lot of growth right now [in the midstate], and it's big in football.

"I think that's really become the premier area in the state of Tennessee, when you split Nashville and Murfreesboro together. For Tennessee to get in there and really get a foothold in that area and prove that they can not only get their fair share but dominate it, is I think is pretty encouraging for the future of that program."

Jones and his staff landed six in-state players in last year's signing class after the Vols signed just three in 2012, and Simmons believes Tennessee's new staff had some recruiting ground to make up inside its home state when it arrived.

"They definitely were," he said. "It doesn't take a lot to get high school coaches and high school players in Tennessee to get excited about the Vols, so while I think there were definitely some relationships to mend, as long as it was a priority, which it clearly was, I don't think that was something that was a tough task.

"I think what's most important about Butch Jones's tenure is it hasn't been lip service and that he actually has recognized that Tennessee is becoming an important state to win, so just by taking that step and actually deciding to make it a priority, that's been really the most important factor in kind of getting Tennessee back to where it needs to be."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.