Harvesting speed from Sunshine State

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More than one factor contributes to a program with the facilities and traditions of Tennessee to lose 34 games in five seasons. Among those is a clear lack of speed on the Volunteers roster.

To help correct the issue, the coaching staff knows it must look south, most specifically to the state of Florida.

Look no further than the Week 3 loss to Oregon — by 45 points. The Ducks ran circles around the Vols.

Zach Azzanni helped build the Florida Gators program with speed at its backbone with BCS National Championship-winning coach Urban Meyer.

"It's very important," said Azzanni, who is now Tennessee's recruiting coordinator. "I've been so blessed to be with some unbelievable head football coaches. I was with coach Meyer for those years at Bowling Green and Florida. One thing I learned from him was if you really look at the top five programs every year, they're all really fast and that's what it is, man. Unless you have a different style like a Wisconsin or Stanford or somebody that has a certain style of hard-nosed, downhill. Everyone else is fast, fast, fast. So, it's absolutely important to go down to Florida and Georgia and Atlanta — it's not like those guys are slow, they've got fast guys too.

"So, yeah, we're going to recruit speed at our skill positions, the linebacker positions, and in this league, the D-end positions. So it's really important."

Running backs coach Robert Gillespie had a first-hand look at the rivalry as a player, holding down runner duties as a Gator 1998-2001. It's impossible to have a slow roster and compete in the series between the Gators and Vols.

"We have to do a great job of going down there and getting the right guys out of Florida," Gillespie told InsideTennessee. "That's tough being that they have a lot of programs there. We have to get the right ones and I think we're going to get on the right kids. The more we continue to build and win and winning is the best recruiter. We've got to go down there and do a good job of getting the right kids but we have to do a good job of taking care of the local radius, you know driving distance.

"This place has been good. They've done a good job in Georgia and South Carolina and also in-state. We've got to do a great job in Florida but we've got to do an even better job of just creating a home environment locally."

Alton Howard is one of Tennessee's fastest players that's been plucked out of Florida.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
The Big Orange tripping every other year to Gainesville for a Southeastern Conference contest helps market the Vols program into that region.

"We get a chance to play against a program that has a lot of TV exposure right now, a lot of national appeal," Gillespie said. "So to play on a national stage on CBS at 3:30, everybody's going to watch, not only the kids at the game but the kid that's in California watching the game or the kid that's in New York watching the game. So it gives us a stage to show who we are as a program and what better way than to go win and show the kids that are at the game and local kids from Florida and also the kids that are watching on TV that we're a program that they should be interested in. We're a program that's doing something fresh and creative and we're getting it back to where kids want to come here."

Tennessee coaches Mark Elder, Don Mahoney, Willie Martinez, Tommy Thigpen are out Friday night in Florida to see top-level talent.

Four-star prospects like Clifton Garrett, Jeffery Holland and Kendrick Norton are being recruited by both Florida and Tennessee and will be in attendance at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday.

Performing well in The Swamp in front of those young men could be eyebrow raising.

"First of all, any opportunity you get to play on CBS Sports in the SEC game of the week at 3:30 primetime, it means a lot for your program," Tennessee coach Butch Jones told IT. "So anytime you get that opportunity you have to make the most of it. Obviously Tennessee is a great brand and so all that is beneficial toward us in moving forward."

The Orange & White roster already has its share of players from the Sunshine State like wide receiver Alton Howard, running back Marlin Lane, linebacker Curt Maggitt, quarterback Nathan Peterman, defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry, defensive end Corey Vereen and defensive end Jordan Williams.

Recruiting battles between the skills have existed for years. Several Gators — offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, defensive tackle Damien Jacobs, linebacker Michael Taylor — had Tennessee as a finalist. Azzanni was on staff in Gainesville when some of the recruiting flips were orchestrated.

"That's just a staff staying relentless and staying in pursuit on a guy and not giving up," Azzanni said. "Every kid is different. You know some kids are never going to budge and you know some kids are going to keep the door crack. If a kid keeps the door cracked and you think they're a good fit for their program, then you keep swinging. I think we all do; I think the good recruiting staffs do that. Obviously that was a good recruiting staff so we just kept swinging."

When the Vols stop swinging and missing on speed, only then will they return to the realm of the elite.

Danny Parker is currently the Managing Editor, Recruiting Analyst and Staff Photographer for InsideTennessee.com. He was previously the sports editor at Shelbyville Times-Gazette. He joined the FOX Sports NEXT team July 2011.
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