Against All Odds Vols Attract Talent

If you're a Tennessee fan who appreciates the fact head coach Phillip Fulmer and his staff consistently land the Vols among the top five schools in recruiting virtually every season, your appreciation may turn to out right adoration after reading this story.

Fans have long heard that the state of Tennessee isn't exactly fertile ground for gridiron prospects. That mantra was among Johnny Majors' favorites during his 16 years at the UT helm and when you take a hard look at the numbers, it's a difficult position to refute.

The fact we haven't heard it as often from Fulmer or with the same degree of despair that Majors could muster is a tribute to his ability to focus on the positives and prevail against the odds. In fact, Fulmer believed so much in his ability to assemble football talent on a national basis that he declared his intention to take Tennessee to the next level on the very day he accepted the job in 1992.

Since that time he has lived up to those aspirations, winning a national championship in his sixth season and compiling a 95-20 going into his 10th full season as boss of the Vols. Fulmer knew he had a lot to recruit to at Tennessee, but he also knew that the task it would take to stock the shelves with talent would be daunting. That's why he has made recruiting THE priority, chose assistants who embraced that edict and kept his staff intact as effectively as any head coach in the country.

The proof of the job he has done is reflected in his record and Tennessee's status as a top-five power both in recruiting and in the polls. It is also mirrored in the multitude of high-ranked prospects that list the Vols among their finalists. However it is most vividly revealed in how few of those prospects hail from the Volunteer State.

Let's take a look at The Insiders prospect rankings to better gauge just how up hill the fight for the nation's finest football players really is at UT. Among the top 362 position players every state in the south has more prospects listed than Tennessee led by Texas with 62 and followed by Florida with 45. Georgia has 29, Louisiana has 21 while Alabama and North Carolina have 12 each. These are followed by Mississippi with 11 and South Carolina with nine. Kentucky and Arkansas have four each and Tennessee brings up the rear with three.

Leading the Tennessee contingent is Jackson Central Merry linebacker Daniel Brooks at No. 101 or No. 9 among players at his position. Similarly, in the Student Sports/Sporting News rankings the state of Tennessee doesn't have a single player listed among the top 100. In the Class of 2001 Tennessee had only one player among the top 100 and that was Nashville MBA quarterback Ingle Martin at No. 100. Ironically, eventually signed with Florida.

Although there are three big-time Division I programs to divide football talent in Florida each can essentially start with a base of 15 solid Division I prospects before ever venturing outside the Sunshine State. The University of Texas will normally get the lion's share of top in-state prospects and will normally turned down many more in-state kids that are good D-I prospects than Tennessee has to offer within its own borders. Without another major in-state football power to contend with, LSU can pick and chose among its 20 or so prospects while Georgia can do the bulk on its shopping at home before looking outside the state to fill specific needs.

Though it's a down year by Alabama standards, the Crimson Tide and Tigers normally have a good base to choose from and only Alabama Birmingham in-state to recruit against. Conversely, the Vols have one-fourth of Alabama's prospect numbers this year and three other D-I programs in-state to contend with in Vanderbilt, Memphis and MTSU.

Sure you can say Tennessee won't lose many of those in-state recruiting battles, but last year alone the Vols had two prospects — John Henry and Willie Henderson — with excellent potential defect to MTSU and Memphis after verbally committing to UT.

Going out of state for prospects means taking longer trips, making more phone calls and waiting longer for a decision. Once you get a verbal commitment, the real battle begins to hold on to that prospect as the heat in-state can often become unbearable for an impressible 17 year-old leaving home.

It also places a greater premium on identifying and developing talent whereas a Florida or Texas can take more risks with players knowing they will have someone in-state to take their place if the gamble doesn't pan out.

Here's another fact to throw into the mix. When Tennessee doesn't go up against tradition rivals in the south for prospects the next best state to go to is California with 42 prospects among the top 362 recruits as ranked by The Insiders. In Student Sports/Sporting News top 100, 15 prospects are from California. The Vols have had some success recruiting the west coast, but the odds are almost always stacked against you when you have to go that far for players.

When you total it up you find that 199 of the top 362 high school football prospects according to The Insiders come from five states — Texas, Florida, California, Georgia and Louisiana. That majority is also shown in the Student Sports/Sporting News rankings with 57 of the top 100 coming from those five states.

Yet with all of this stated there's every reason to believe Tennessee will once again land one of the best recruiting classes in America in 2003. Vol fans have always known Fulmer & Co. did a great job of signing top talent. But when you look at the competition and where they recruit, its easy to see that no one does it better.

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