In-state recruiting rush continues

Stay glued to InsideTennessee.com for all the latest Tennessee football and recruiting news. Scroll down to read about a Class of 2017 in-state athletes the Vols are targeting.

Butch Jones has stressed the importance of in-state recruiting time and time again.

The first-year headman is trying to build a wall around Tennessee. Landing valued in-state prospects is a priority.

Jones has accomplished this mission handedly so far. The staff has been able to reel in key in-state targets in the 2014 class such as Jalen Hurd, RaShaan Gaulden, Derek Barnett, Vic Wharton and Todd Kelly Jr.

Jones and Co. have continued their momentum in the 2015 class, landing verbal pledges from Jaylond Woods, Zach Stewart and Jack Jones while pursuing several others such as Kyle Phillips, Rico McGraw and Drew Richmond.

But the battle to net Volunteer State recruits never ends. The Vols already have their eyes on the Class of 2017.

Maleik Gray, a freshman running back and safety at La Vergne (Tenn.) High School, has already pocketed four SEC offers. The Vols were the latest school to extend the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder a scholarship on Sept. 27.

"I was honored, absolutely honored, to get a Tennessee offer," Gray told InsideTennessee.

Gray was on hand to watch the Vols narrowly fall to sixth-ranked Georgia on Oct. 5. It wasn't Gray's first trip to Knoxville, he's camped at Tennessee several times and visited for last season's Alabama game, but it was far and away his favorite trip to date.

"I mean, as far as this last visit goes — I loved it," Gray said. "I loved the atmosphere and the way the fans support the team, that was crazy. It was an unbelievable visit."

Gray flashed an ear-to-ear smile standing outside Neyland Stadium. He couldn't decide if the game-day atmosphere or touring Tennessee's newly constructed facilities was his favorite part.

"I've never heard a stadium that loud before. It gave me the chills and goose bumps when I heard all those fans cheer and roar. It was unbelievable," Gray said. "That may be my favorite part, but then again, I love the facility. I got the chance to tour all that and, wow, it's all so nice. I love it all."

While Gray gushed and raved about his visit, the Vols are competing for the athlete's services with another in-state school.

Gray said Vanderbilt is the school pursuing him hardest at the moment.

Gray caught a game at Neyland in 2012 as well, seeing the Vols host Alabama.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
"(Vanderbilt is) real tight with me. They check in with me a lot and make me feel like I'm needed real bad," Gray said. "I like it over there. I like Vandy a lot. They check in how I'm doing off the field and in school."

Other than Tennessee and Vanderbilt, Gray owns offers from Mississippi and Kentucky.

Gray said Florida State would be his "dream offer."

"I'm still a freshman. I'm in no rush to make a decision," Gray told IT. "I have plenty of time to think."

While Gray "loved" Tennessee's new smokey gray jerseys, he said the most important part of his still young recruitment isn't fancy equipment or facilities. It's winning.

"What matters to me most is a team that wants to win. A team that can win. I want to be apart of a winning organization," Gray said. "It's not about the jerseys, it's not about the stadium, it's not about what the school even looks like, it's about what the players want to do and what their goal is."

Gray watched the Vols let a late fourth quarter lead slip away and eventually lose in overtime. But Gray got the chance to talk with Jones before the game and is convinced the first-year coach has the Vols headed in the right direction. He left Knoxville impressed with the Vols' heart.

"Of course, yes. The way Butch Jones talks, he's going to turn this place around. He's a great guy and you can tell the team and fans are really buying in," Gray said. "There's no doubt he's going to turn Tennessee around.

"I mean, that's a hard loss right there but you can't be stuck on the loss. Losing is a part of football and the Vols, man, they showed heart. It was really unbelievable to watch that team fight the way they did."

Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen is serving as Gray's lead recruiter. Gray said he spent time watching Thigpen on the sideline Saturday.

"(Thigpen) has a lot of energy on the sideline. He's a real fiery guy," Gray said. "But he's a real cool guy and is just a real nice guy. I like him a lot."

Gray visited Kentucky on Oct. 12 to watch the Wildcats host Alabama.


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