Catch-up recruiting is tough

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When a football coach addresses football writers, a football analogy is entirely appropriate. And Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen came up with a dandy in explaining the difficulty the newly assembled Vol staff faced in trying to play catch-up on the recruiting trail in recent weeks.

"It was pretty intense," he said during Wednesday's National Signing Day news conference. "You've really got only 30 or 31 days to run, so it's like you're down 28-0 and you're trying to make a comeback with five minutes left on the clock."

Tennessee's recruiters didn't overcome the entire 28-0 deficit but they rallied strongly enough to post a respectable finish. Their 2013 signing class of 21 prospects could have been better but, given the time constraints, it could've been a lot worse.

New head coach Butch Jones said his staff did "a tremendous job" in the weeks leading up to National Signing Day, and wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni agreed.

"What we did in 31 days was remarkable," Azzanni said. "Now we're going to have 365 days to do it (recruit the next class)."

Thigpen, who faced a similar catch-up situation at Auburn four years ago, remembers the recruiting trail getting much smoother in Years 2, 3 and 4.

"At Auburn we ended up falling short (in Year 1) on a lot of kids," he recalled." But then the next three years we finished up in the top 10."

With Tennessee coming off consecutive records of 5-7, 7-6, 6-7, 5-7, 5-7, convincing elite prospects to visit the campus was a tough sell … especially in 31 days.

"Getting them on campus was the biggest thing," Jones said. "Once they got on campus they could feel the energy, they could feel the excitement that surrounds our program. But it was a challenge."

Thigpen believes the Vols were close to having a superior recruiting class in 2013, noting: "We've got a great head coach, and he's a great closer. We just ran out of time. I think next year, when we've got 365 days, it's going to make a difference."

Azzanni thinks so, too. Noting that Tennessee's staff has "made a lot of inroads with coaches and kids that I think will really start the fireworks," he added: "I think some of the kids that jumped in the boat (for the 2013 class) – who had faith in this program, Coach Jones, this staff, Tennessee and what we're going to do here – showed some of these guys in the 2014 class 'Hey, these guys are for real.' I think the word's out that we're doing it the right way and we're going to continue doing it the right way."

Tennessee managed to "turn" eight prospects who were committed to other schools. Jones admitted that number was higher than in his first year at two previous stops – Central Michigan and Cincinnati. He attributed this to several factors, including the "genuineness" of his staffers and the Volunteer tradition.

"Tennessee sells itself," he said. "It's the brand. When you walk into Neyland Stadium and you think of all the great players that have played on that field, you become overwhelmed."

Recruiting is a year-round proposition these days, so Vol staffers already are targeting the prospects they'll pursue in the months to come.

"I think we hit the ground running today," Azzanni said. "We all kind of woke up with the mindset of 'OK, let's get this 2013 class signed and let's roll on this '14 class."

Jones, quickly establishing himself as an optimist's optimist, is convinced the Vols already are rolling on the recruiting trail.

"Every great program goes through its trials and tribulations … the storms," the head man said. "The storms have gone, and you can see the sunshine coming through the clouds."

See some of what the Vol staff said in after NSD in the video below:

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