The recruiting cycle knows no offseason. Take a day off and see what happens.
One National Signing Day after another, much of the country points at the Southeastern Conference with a singular thought: “The rich get richer.”
It’s not happenstance. Certain programs simply invest more into player evaluations and relationship building than others.
Bob Welton’s post at Tennessee is a clear example of staying ahead of the curve. The director of player personnel brings over two decades of experience with coaching and scouting to Rocky Top. It’s not the typical post like those held by assistant coaches and graduate assistants. The director of personnel spends a majority of each day on future rosters.
“Eighty-percent probably,” Welton said, “and the rest of it probably is our own team, looking at our numbers on our team and watching our tape and practice tapes and things like that from our own team and making some suggestions to coach. ‘This is something I’m noticing. We’ve got to get better at this position.’ Stuff like that.”
That remaining 20-percent involved with the current team deals with pinpointing spots within the roster that must be bolstered as Tennessee attempts to continue flipping its roster, which is a daunting task that is off to an impressive start after signing the Scout network’s No. 4- and No. 5-ranked classes in the nation in 2014 and 2015, respectively, before the No. 17 class for 2016.
“It’s no different than in the NFL,” said Welton, who always has the ear of Tennessee coach Butch Jones. “You have got to know your own team to be able to draft to help your team. You’ve really got to keep up on your own team.”
The position is one that’s only come about in the last 6-7 years or so. Much of what Welton has on his plate came at his suggestion.
“Shoot, I actually approached Butch with it because I was looking to do something like that,” Welton said. “We really just kind of sat down and talked and he asked me, ‘How do you envision this going?’ And I told him what I thought and he kind of said, ‘I like all of that and maybe some of this.’ We just kind of hashed it out really. I think it’s been a good marriage obviously. I think we work well together, and I think our staff is getting close to being where we want it. It’s not quite there yet but it will be soon. It’s been good.”
Having a man like Welton with experience ranging from Adrian (Mich.) College quarterback to 13 seasons as a head high school coach and nine years scouting for the Cleveland Browns means over two decades of leading young people and extracting next-even skills from hours and hours of game film for Vols coaches to rely and trust upon.
Before the signed letters of intent even stopped arriving to the offices at the Anderson Training Center in February, the Tennessee staff was off the races, continuing forward with already-established relationships with sophomores and juniors.
"Everything is accelerated, everything with the recruiting process,” Jones said. “Right now, everyone is recruiting (future classes) and so it's a long process. It's a very tedious process with junior days and then you go into spring recruiting and then you go into the summer months and it's critical that you get these prospective student-athletes on campus and you start building relationships with them and you can learn so much more about them when you get them on your campus. That's really where your relationships really start to build, start to manifest themselves. Our coaches did a great job of really getting this recruiting class to campus and not just one or two times but on multiple, multiple occasions and that really helps grow the relationships. But you're exactly right, it's non-stop, it's ever-evolving each and every day and it does become more and more accelerated."
It takes a coordinated effort to get a room of coaches on the phone with 120-150 juniors — with Jones speaking to 75-100 of those — on National Signing Day but Welton and staff provide a lending hand to that organization. Azzanni says the pursuit of top-shelf talent is greatly aided by Welton & Co. “It’s not a pat-on-your-back business” but there’s a mutual respect given to the recruiting side of Tennessee football.
“Bob does a great job of that,” said Azzanni, who relinquished his two-year role as recruiting coordinator to Robert Gillespie prior to the last cycle. “Obviously he keeps us on track, especially during the season. When we’re out of season, this is our season. So recruiting is our season. We just flip right from X’s and O’s right into full-time recruiting mode. During the season, we’ll spend every morning a couple hours on recruiting before we start gameplanning and we’ll spend every night after we watch film calling kids and watching recruits.
“Bob and his staff will make it easy on us, ‘Hey, let’s get these five kids watched this week.’ Or, ‘Let’s make sure we talk to these 15 guys this week. Coach Jones needs to get on the phone with Player A, Player B and Player C.’ So their staff does a really good job of that throughout the season.”
The attention to detail and the stricktoitiveness are paying off.
In 2015, the Volunteers added the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect in Kahlil McKenzie, the No. 1 wide receiver in the nation in Preston Williams, five-star running back Alvin Kamara, the No. 1 junior college cornerback in Justin Martin and the No. 1 in-state talent in Kyle Phillips.
In February, the Big Orange inked the top-rated quarterback in the East in Jarrett Guarantano, the No. 1 JUCO defensive end in Jonathan Kongbo, the South’s No. 1 safety in Nigel Warrior and the Volunteer State's top-rated defender in linebacker Daniel Bituli.
The mantra, Azzanni says, is “You can help us or you can watch us.”
This report originally appeared in InsideTennessee magazine.