KNOXVILLE — Throughout his tenure as Tennessee's football coach, Butch Jones has emphasized the importance of in-state recruiting, and those homegrown players have been key pieces to the Volunteers' success.
Some of the state's best players in the 2017 class are heading elsewhere, however.
The top three players in Tennessee, according to Rivals.com, are five-star prospects leaving the state with wide receiver Tee Higgins (Oak Ridge) heading to Clemson, safety JaCoby Stevens (Murfreesboro) already enrolled at LSU and linebacker Jacob Phillips (Nashville) also set to sign with LSU after flipping from Oklahoma last week.
"It hurts, and it hurts that JaCoby Stevens never really gave them a strong look, at least a strong enough look, and Jacob Phillips, who just flipped from Oklahoma to LSU," Rivals national recruiting director Mike Farrell said in an interview with Knoxville's Sports Radio WNML on Monday.
"The top three guys in the state left, and that always hurts, and that didn't happen in Butch's first couple of years. Higgins is the one, I think, that hurts the most, because you're talking about a rare talent, to me. He reminds me of an A.J. Green type of kid. He's very, very flexible, tall, skinny, tremendous balance, and his catch radius is off the charts.
"He can make a bad quarterback, an inaccurate quarterback look good, and that's really what you need. Any quarterback needs that, a guy to bail them out. Having him commit, then decommit and then go to Clemson hurts, and they're just going to have to sort of regroup in the state next year in moving forward."
In what Farrell called a "special year" for in-state talent, the Vols came up far from empty.
Offensive lineman Trey Smith, a January enrollee, is a five-star prospect according to 247Sports.com and the nation's No. 1 player per ESPN, and running back Ty Chandler and safety Maleik Gray are top-100 prospects for whom the Vols faced stiff competition.
The Vols' class includes five other in-state prospects: defensive back Theo Jackson (Nashville), tight end/defensive end LaTrell Bumphus (Savannah), offensive lineman K'Rojhn Calbert (McMinnville), wide receiver Princeton Fant (LaVergne) and kicker Brent Cimaglia (Franklin).
"What's gone right is obviously they've kept home a key offensive lineman," Farrell said. "Trey Smith is a guy — we saw the offensive line play this past year, they need an influx of talent there. I think he's an early enrollee who's ready to make an impact. That's key. I do like some of the positional groupings that they've got here.
"I think they got some help at wide receiver with some guys with some size. A lot of depth there at running back. One of these three guys definitely is going to pan out as the heir apparent to (John) Kelly or will push Kelly pretty quickly. They did help themselves in addition to Trey with a few other good offensive linemen — and D-end, a lot of D-ends here.
"None of them are Derek Barnett, at least on paper, but they're going to help their pass rush with this class."
In-state recruiting victories were paramount to Tennessee's elite classes in 2014 and 2015. Barnett, Jalen Hurd, Josh Malone, Todd Kelly Jr., Rashaan Gaulden and Jashon Robertson from the 2014 class went on to play pivotal roles in Tennessee's success. In 2015 the Vols landed a pair of in-state five-stars, Drew Richmond and Kyle Phillips, in addition to Jauan Jennings and Jack Jones, but it is a different story in 2017.
Unlike the late-developing Jacob Phillips, Higgins was a can't-miss prospect from the start, and Tennessee landed a commitment from him in August 2015. But he backed off the pledge last February and surprisingly picked Clemson four months later. At the time the Vols believed they'd done enough to land Higgins.
Tennessee was the second team to offer Phillips a scholarship in September 2014, and though he visited campus multiple times in 2015, the Vols cooled on him. His recruitment exploded last summer, and he took official visits to Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Oregon, Alabama and Texas A&M during the season. Phillips was a Mr. Football award winner and a U.S. Army All-American.
Stevens never seriously considered the Vols, and other in-state targets including running back Chase Hayden (Arkansas), athlete Amari Rodgers (Clemson), defensive tackle Rutger Reitmaier (Oregon) and offensive lineman Obinna Eze (Memphis) are heading elsewhere.
"When Butch Jones takes over," Farrell said, "he's replacing Derek Dooley and it's not a successful program, so he can sell a vision: Stay home and let's win together. Then it's been a few years, they were a dark horse a couple years ago to win the SEC East. This year they were flat-out the favorite — didn't happen.
"Kids start to get a little bit wary of the vision pitch, and they want to see results on the field. When you see a guy like Higgins, what did (Clemson) do? Win the national championship. You see a guy like JaCoby Stevens going to LSU. Now LSU is known as 'DB U' in a lot of cases and has produced some tremendous NFL defensive backs.
"Jacob Phillips originally (committed to) Oklahoma, a playoff team and national title contender a year ago. It's winning. It comes down to winning. You'll keep the kids in state with a vision, but if that vision doesn't pan out within a few years, then they'll start leaving."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.