Trivia time: Which state has eight bordering states?
The answer is Tennessee.
So why the Jeopardy question when talking about the University of Tennessee and college football recruiting? Because it's going to be the key for new Vols head coach Derek Dooley's recruiting philosophy.
In the past, both under Phillip Fulmer and Lane Kiffin, the Volunteers had more of a national philosophy when it came to recruiting. They had to broaden their reach because Tennessee doesn't produce all that many top-end D-I talents. In fact, over the past five years, the Vols have only signed 28 in-state players. Fulmer and Kiffin recruited the South hard, but they also went into Big Ten country, out West to California and everywhere in-between.
Now, under Dooley, the Vols want to recruit their border states (Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas), close states like South Carolina, Indiana, Illinois and West Virginia, as well Florida and Ohio. Dooley and company want to recruit a five-hour, 300-mile radius from Knoxville and treat everything in that circle as "in-state" for UT. They will also "spot" recruit with prospects from outside this designated area who show a genuine interest in the Tennessee program.
In that radius you also have some city and metro areas that produce good talent like Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., and Charlotte, to name a few. Those city centers are actually closer to Knoxville, Tenn. than Memphis. But the fact of the matter is that because of Knoxville's location, 300 miles or so almost gets you to the state of Florida (south), Charlotte (east), and Dayton, Ohio (north).
That's a lot of prospects to choose from and it explains Dooley's new approach. Sure, it's tough to go in someone else's backyard to pull players, but it's easier to do when it's closer to home on two fronts. First, for the coaches, they can put more energy toward prospects because of their proximity. It's an easier day trip, as opposed to having to go to California or Texas. Second, it might be more appealing for the players since, for the most part, prospects typically decide to stay within a three-to-five hour drive of home.
So the big question is will this new approach be successful? I believe the Vols will be fine in the long term, but the short term will be a little rough and Vols fans must be patient. Last season, with such a short recruiting window with his 2010 class, Dooley did a phenomenal job, especially landing four-star recruits like wide receivers Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James, defensive end Corey Miller, and offensive guard James Stone, all members of the ESPNU 150.
But moving forward, the challenge will be enormous, mainly because of Dooley's staff inexperience with recruiting in the SEC. This conference, more than any other, is absolutely brutal off the field in the recruiting wars. That's even probably an understatement.
Dooley, who has a wonderful pedigree in terms of coaching, has learned so much from two masters -- his father (legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley) and Alabama head coach Nick Saban. He has seven years of SEC recruiting experience under his belt and has another veteran of the SEC recruiting battles in assistant coach Lance Thompson, who was with the previous staff and with Saban at both Alabama and LSU. But other than that, Vols recruiting coordinator Terry Joseph spent one year at LSU and Jim Chaney is in his third season in Knoxville. Meanwhile, the coaching staffs of Alabama, Georgia and Florida have a combined 134 years of experience of recruiting in the Southeastern Conference. That's quite a difference.
Still, this is the University of Tennessee we are talking about. Dooley, though young and maybe not as experienced as his rivals in this league, will be fine if given the right amount of time to build the program and shape it to his vision. You will certainly see a different approach than Dooley's predecessor; they will be ultra-organized and methodical. Tennessee will go after high-character prospects who really want to wear the orange and white and will be proud to represent the University of Tennessee. This is a solid coaching staff from top to bottom that will seek prospects who fit into what they do and players they can develop over time.
Who the Vols have
So far Tennessee has five verbal commitments, all out-of-state prospects. Tom Smith, a running back prospect from Apopka (Fla.) High School, is an every-down back who has size (5-foot-11, 202 pounds) and runs with some power. The Vols landed Athens (Ga.) Clarke Central offensive tackle Alan Posey. He is 6-5, 305 pounds, strong and pretty athletic for his size. Tennessee also went to the Peach State to land linebacker Christian Harris and safety Brian Randolph. Harris, from Woodstock Etowah, is flying a little under the radar and will be an outside 'backer. Randolph, from Marietta Kell, has speed and range and projects as a safety. All are three-star prospects except for Posey, who is a four-star player.
The Vols have also committed a junior college prospect in Andrew Power from Arizona Western College. Power is originally from Myrtle Beach, S.C.
This will be a full class for Tennessee so it will make its share of noise on the recruiting front over the next seven-plus months. The Vols have offered roughly 100 uncommitted prospects scholarships in the area they now consider their recruiting territory. Certainly with an upcoming recruiting class of 25, you will likely see all positions filled, but there are several real-need areas that will get extra attention, like both lines of scrimmage and defensive back. The Volunteers also want to get more athletic and faster across the board.
Quarterback Justin Worley (Rock Hill, S.C.), running backs Shon Carson (Lake City, S.C.) and Romar Morris (Salisbury, N.C.), offensive linemen Zach DeBell (Tarpon Springs, Fla.), Antonio Richardson (Nashville, Tenn.), Kyler Kerbyson (Knoxville, Tenn.), Mack Crowder (Bristol, Tenn.), Cameron Clear (Memphis, Tenn.), and Zach West (Lexington, Ky.), defensive linemen Terrance Coleman (Wesson, Miss.), P.J. Jones (Tupelo, Miss.), Demarcus Hodge (Monroe, La.), Keymiya Harrell (Plantersville, Ala.), and Jesse Hayes (Cincinnati, Ohio), linebackers Christian Russell (Fayetteville, N.C.), Cedrick Cooper (Lithonia, Ga.), Justin Garrett (Tucker, Ga.), Jaiari Dunaway (Murfreesboro, Tenn.), and Kent Turene (Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.), safeties Gerrod Holliman, Avery Walls (Union Grove, Ga.), Malcolm Mitchell (Valdosta, Ga.), Pat Martin (Greenville, S.C.), and Kadetrix Marcus (Stone Mountain, Ga.), cornerback Ronnie Harris (Atlanta, Ga.), athlete Damian Swann (Atlanta, Ga.) and Derek King (Brentwood, Tenn.) are all names to keep a close on eye with Tennessee. The list includes many four-star and three-star players and note how most are located in the new region Tennessee considers its home turf.
For Dooley and his Volunteers to finish with the No. 9 class in last season's national team recruiting rankings was a job very well-done. They closed unexpectedly well, especially snatching Rogers away from Georgia, beating Alabama for Stone and LSU for Hunter. Can Dooley and his staff pull the same magic with their 2011 group? That remains to be seen. But this staff will work hard, especially in what they consider to be their region, trying to land players who fit their style, both on and off the field.
Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.