KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's 2014 and 2015 football signing classes were built with the help of prospects recruiting other prospects.
A handful of current players deserve an assist for the 2016 class the Volunteers just inked.
Whether players were hosting recruits on official visits or reaching out to them on their own, head coach Butch Jones and other Tennessee staffers praised the efforts of the current team in their roles in helping lock down a top-15 class.
"Our players are our greatest ambassadors for the University of Tennessee," Jones said Wednesday night at the recruiting celebration at the Tennessee Theatre. "The culture is 100 percent different. For the first time since we've been here, we had our players, our great players, walking into our offices and saying, 'Coach, I want to host this weekend.'
"They became competitive in terms of hosting these prospective student-athletes. They took ownership in that. And they owned it."
Alvin Kamara and Jalen Reeves-Maybin were fixtures during the live stream on Tennessee's website during signing day Wednesday, and that duo introduced Jones when he announced the signing of touted defensive end Jonathan Kongbo.
Regardless of what any coach says, recruits can get the best idea of what to expect at a certain program from the players who comprise it. Likewise, a coaching staff can get a better view of a recruit's personality and character from the players who host and interact with them during visits and elsewhere.
"The great thing we have now, what Coach (Jones) has done here, is our culture's set," said director of player personnel Bob Welton, an invaluable asset to the program since being hired from the Cleveland Browns in 2013.
"There's a culture here. Before, with these other recruiting classes, we had to kind of bring kids in to create that culture. Well, these kids now have to fit the culture. That's a lot more fun to go out to recruit kids in which the character part plays a big role, because they've got to be able to fit what we're doing now."
Jones said Tennessee turned away "some really good football players" due to the limits on the numbers in the 2016 class, and the Vols also shied away from other prospects based on the words of a current player.
"We meet with our players, our hosts, once the official visit concludes," Jones explained. "We want to know if (the recruit is) a fit for our culture. There's a few players that we walked away from because our players said they didn't fit our culture: 'They won't make it here, Coach.'
"There were others: Tyler Byrd is an example. Our players kept coming into our office (saying), 'Coach, we've got to have him; we've got to have him; we've got to have him.' Those are the things, when that's in place and the players believe in what you're doing and they're as selective as you are, you've got something going."
Multiple players, including Reeves-Maybin, Kamara, Derek Barnett and Todd Kelly Jr., reached out to Kongbo in the final 72 hours leading up to his decision Wednesday, and Kongbo told Knoxville radio station WKGN on Friday afternoon that he would wear No. 1 with Kahlil McKenzie switching to No. 99.
Secondary coach Willie Martinez credited cornerback Cameron Sutton with helping secure Byrd and others.
"That was one thing that (Byrd) said, that he was so impressed with Cam," Martinez said. "Really two of our recruits, he really nailed to the coffin, really to be honest with you. He's done more really than a lot of people understand."
Daytona Beach (Fla.) offensive lineman Marcus Tatum was another one swayed by current Vols.
"The players had a huge impact on this young man choosing Tennessee," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. "Jashon Robertson, Brett Kendrick, so many guys had an impact on this young man that he came over to bowl practice in Tampa and came last weekend unofficially, just get to back to Rocky Top. That's how excited he is about this place."
The work his players did in helping the coaches land recruits was exciting for Jones.
"What can I say about our players?" he said during his signing day news conference. "They are truly, truly invested, and that was evident today. It was evident throughout the entire recruiting process. They are the best ambassadors that we have. They are our best recruiters for Tennessee football."
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