The story behind Tennessee's landmark 2014 recruiting class
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Dana Morrison glanced at the clock above the door to the Tennessee offensive coaches' meeting room early on Wednesday morning. Nearly an hour had passed since recruits were allowed to begin signing and faxing the National Letter of Intent, but only two recruits had so far taken advantage of the opportunity.
"Need some action," the 2011 Tennessee graduate said as she stood near the fax machine and tapped an orange high heel. "Two in one hour is not going to cut it."
Morrison had little reason to worry. Unlike in 2013, when a new Volunteers staff had entered National Signing Day waiting on the decisions of 12 players, Tennessee coaches began Wednesday unsure of the final choices of exactly two. Fourteen members of the program's '14 signing class had already enrolled -- most were working out one floor below at the time -- and the majority of the 18 (or 19) players that the team expected to sign on Wednesday had made their intentions clear and had never wavered.
Still, Morrison and the rest of the football staff couldn't help but feel nervous. After all, she had spent the past year juggling all the details of the players' official and unofficial visits. After spending time as a student worker on coach Derek Dooley's staff, Morrison became a key cog in the Volunteers' recruiting machine because Butch Jones -- hired in December 2012 to raise Tennessee football from the ashes after several years of colossal mismanagement at seemingly every level -- knew that the Vols could use a young, smart go-getter who understood how to create an experience that would make recruits and their families feel at home. Morrison welcomed everyone, from the legacy players and their parents who knew the place intimately, to the mother (whose son signed elsewhere) who clutched a Louis Vuitton-jacketed Bible and yelled when her luggage touched the ground. But even after 14 months spent obtaining verbal commitments for the class they hope will lift Tennessee back into the nation's elite, Morrison and the other staffers wanted to see the faxes. On Tuesday night, receivers coach Zach Azzanni explained why no one in a football office can truly relax until every page rolls off a piece of butterknife-edge 1990s technology. "You just can't," Azzanni said. "Because everybody's been burned before."
With the exception of what essentially amounted to a swap of defensive linemen, Tennessee didn't get burned on Wednesday. The Vols completed the mission Jones and his staff started the moment they landed in Knoxville. They protected their borders from an out-of-state onslaught and inked 10 in-state players, and they brought in a group that seems serious about making Tennessee a destination program again. "You look at all the great programs, they own their state," Jones said. "It was critical to lock down the best players in our state."
Tennessee is not a great program at the moment, and providing a full account of the reasons why could take days. Here are the basic facts:
- Iconic coach Phillip Fulmer's program had slipped, so the administration fired Fulmer in 2008 and hired Lane Kiffin.
- Kiffin bailed after one controversial 7-6 season, leaving for USC in January 2010. That forced the Vols to change direction again.
- Tennessee hired Dooley, who came in saying the right things and generally acting like someone who wasn't Lane Kiffin. But Dooley went 16-21, failed to make a bowl game in his final two seasons and only lightly recruited inside the state.
Jones inherited a program with national title expectations and a 5-7 reality. He and his staff tried to make inroads with as many class of 2013 players as they could. They landed a few, including Charlotte, N.C., wide receiver Marquez North, who flipped from North Carolina. But they resolved that if players didn't meet their standards, they wouldn't sign them for the sake of filling slots. They would leave those spots open for potential early enrollees in the class of '14. Jones and company knew that year would be an unusually good one for talent in the Volunteer State, and they knew they had a lot of repair work to do.
When Jones arrived, Tennessee had essentially abandoned its own state as a recruiting ground. While the state doesn't produce star recruits in anywhere near the numbers of Florida, Georgia or Alabama, there is consistently good high school football played in the Nashville and Memphis metro areas. Fulmer routinely mined the state for stars such as Al Wilson (Jackson), Travis Stephens (Clarksville), John Henderson (Nashville) and Jason Witten (Elizabethton). Unfortunately, Dooley's staff hadn't built many good relationships in the state. Of the 76 players signed by his staff, only 11 hailed from Tennessee. Many of the best players in the state were leaving, or -- and this is far worse in a world viewed through Tennessee orange glasses -- staying and going to Vanderbilt to play for James Franklin, who had quickly forged relationships in Nashville and Memphis.
Geography makes recruiting within the state for Tennessee somewhat complicated. The state is essentially a long parallelogram that borders Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri. While a player may reside in Tennessee, his school allegiance may reside across the state line. Traditionally, the best players have come from Memphis, which is a dull six-hour drive west on Interstate 40 from Knoxville. In the SEC, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Alabama and LSU are all closer to Memphis than is Knoxville. Auburn and Missouri are essentially a push. What made the class of 2014 so intriguing was that most of the best players in the state lived near Nashville. A two-and-a-half hour ride west across the Cumberland Plateau, Nashville is solidly orange. Vanderbilt may sit just south of downtown, but most college fans in the metro area identify themselves as Volunteers. In spite of both this and the fact that Nashville is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country, Tennessee had not recruited Nashville hard in recent years. "I think they completely ignored it," Brent Hubbs, the publisher of Rivals' network site Volquest.com, said this week in a podcast previewing National Signing Day. Still, when Jones scanned the recruiting files and saw that the best players lived in places like Gallatin and Hendersonville and Brentwood, he knew the Vols would have a chance if he and his staff could repair relationships in the area.
Jones dispatched linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen and tight ends coach/special teams coordinator Mark Elder to Nashville. Elder had recruited the area while at Cincinnati with Jones. Thigpen, whose last job had been at Auburn under Gene Chizik, had not, but he understood the importance of his task. "You lost the grasp of your state," Thigpen said. "If you can't hold your state, who is going to mold your team?" The Tennessee coaches weren't starting entirely from scratch, though. Jones had one ace up his sleeve.
Vic Wharton, a star receiver at Nashville's Independence High, had wowed Jones and his staff at Cincinnati's camp in the summer of 2012. Jones had made an equally good impression on Wharton. Had the coaching carousel spun a little differently, Wharton might have even committed to play for Jones and the Bearcats. But it just so happened that Jones was hired at the school that had been Wharton's favorite when he was a child. Wharton didn't need much convincing, but Jones pressed anyway. "We challenged him to commit very early, to champion the class," Jones said. On Christmas Day of 2012, Wharton called Jones and said he wanted to be a Vol. Jones thanked him and then gave him an assignment. Wharton played alongside defensive back Rashaan Gaulden at Independence. He was tight with tailback Jalen Hurd from Hendersonville. Jones wanted Wharton to bring his friends to the program.
Wharton also had a buddy in Knoxville named Todd Kelly Jr. Kelly, a star safety at the Webb School, knew all about his hometown team. His father was an All-SEC defensive end at Tennessee in the '90s. But the younger Kelly had been targeted by some of the best programs in the country. Alabama wanted him. So did Ohio State and Stanford. Would he turn them down when the only thing Jones could sell was a dream? On March 10, after some heavy recruiting by Wharton, Kelly took the plunge. When a Rivals.com reporter called Kelly to confirm the news of his commitment, Kelly became a recruiter himself. He and Wharton would combine their powers of persuasion to attempt to convince Hurd to join the class.
Hurd, a 6-foot-3, 227-pounder from Beech High, physically resembles Alabama tailback Derrick Henry, another tall, solid back with far more speed than his size should allow. As a junior in 2011, Hurd rushed for a state record 3,357 yards and 43 touchdowns. Tennessee coaches had already been working on him. They had impressed him in February '13 at a Junior Day built around the Tennessee basketball team's rout of Kentucky. Former Tennessee star Jay Graham, still the Vols running backs coach before he was hired away by Florida State later that month, told Hurd how he could fit into an on-field lineage that included Graham, Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry. Hurd was intrigued, but he planned to visit all the schools he was considering during spring practice. Tennessee would have to fight off Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Georgia and Florida. But Hurd made up his mind sooner than even he anticipated. Four days after Kelly committed to Tennessee, Jones' phone buzzed just as the Vols started a spring practice. Hurd was on the other end. He wanted to be a Vol even though Dooley's last team had gone 5-7 and Jones' first squad didn't project to make much of a dent in the SEC.
Hurd's commitment legitimized Tennessee's recruiting pitch. Wharton was a true believer. Kelly was a legacy. But Hurd had no previous connection to the staff or the program, and he had been convinced to turn down offers from teams with far more recent success to commit to the Volunteers. "They wanted to be the ones who got Tennessee back on the map, and we sold them on that," Azzanni said. "We said, 'Listen, don't judge us on this season. We're not going to fix a program in eight months.'"
To climb out of the hole the Tennessee administration dug over a five-year period would probably take years, but Vols coaches hoped one special class full of Tennessee legacies and in-state natives would jumpstart the process. "Tennessee born equals Tennessee football," Azzanni said. "This place and the games you play here are going to mean a little bit more to you. That got lost somewhere along the way."
Tennessee's coaches began blanketing the state during the spring evaluation period. Thigpen tried to have lunches and dinners with high school coaches to establish relationships and pick their brains about players. Meanwhile, Jones and the staff extended an open invitation to the state's coaches to come to Knoxville and talk schemes or learn new training methods. "They've been kind and thoughtful and welcoming," said Ricky Bowers, the coach at Nashville's Ensworth School. "Offering opportunities to learn and grow for high school coaches is important. They've done that." Bowers, who previously coached at Montgomery Bell Academy and Brentwood Academy, said the focus on recruiting the state for Jones' staff is similar to the effort put forth by Fulmer's staff. Asked if the increased visibility in metro Nashville contributed to the quality and quantity of the in-state haul, Bowers said there was no doubt. "This wasn't an accident," he said.
With the three in-state stars on board, the commitments began rolling in. Jones noticed that every time the Vols hit a slight lull, another player would pledge and reenergize the class. By last fall, Tennessee had commitments from Gaulden and Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., linebacker Dillon Bates --- the son of former Tennessee star Bill Bates. The current Vols performed about as expected during the season. Tennessee went 5-7 but hung with Georgia and upset South Carolina during Vol For Life Weekend, a celebration of the program's alumni. Every player who wound up in the 2014 class attended at least one game, soaking in the enthusiasm of a loyal fan base starved for a winner. Morrison and her recruiting office team made those weekends memorable. Besides witnessing the usual traditions -- the Vol Walk, running through the T -- recruits cruised along the nearby Tennessee River for dinner after games, leaving from near Neyland Stadium and docking outside Jones' house for dessert and another sales pitch. While the Vol Navy, the group of tailgaters who travel to games by boat, is among the more unique traditions in college football, Tennessee coaches hadn't used their waterway as a recruiting tool before. With few recent big wins to sell, this staff used everything it could.
It also used a new NCAA rule to land one of the key pieces in the class. Last year was the first that players planning to enroll in January were allowed to sign financial aid agreements in November. Upon signing such an agreement, the usual rules regarding recruiting contact were lifted. Coaches could treat a player like any currently enrolled member of the team. They could make unlimited phone calls, send unlimited texts and visit often. Josh Malone, a 6-3, 205-pound receiver from Gallatin, Tenn., wanted to build relationships with his future coaches. So he signed agreements with Tennessee, Georgia, Clemson and Florida State. Azzanni remained in constant contact with Malone, and Malone committed to Tennessee on Dec. 4. "I thought going into the holidays, the Josh Malone commitment rejuvenated the class," Jones said.
By that point, the class basically made its own gravy. The in-state players had formed a tight bond and turned into valuable recruiters themselves. "It was really infectious," Thigpen said. More importantly, the core of the class refused to visit other schools. Instead, it came back to Knoxville repeatedly because unofficial visits cost players' parents little when they live only a few hours from campus. The group seemed so excited about the possibility of being the class that brought Tennessee back that its members simply declined to play the usual games leading up to National Signing Day. "It's not going to happen like that again," Thigpen said. "You're always going to have drama. ... It's just a really unique year."
That's why the mood in the Tennessee coaches' offices was so light on Wednesday morning. Thigpen sauntered through the halls, smiling with the knowledge that he had likely secured one more player for the class. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian stopped player personnel director Bob Welton -- who was hired last May after nine years with the Cleveland Browns -- and hazed the new guy. "Bob, there's a tradition maybe no one told you about," Bajakian said. "Usually, the personnel guy brings in doughnuts."
Meanwhile, the staff had set up a canine/equestrian extravaganza designed to educate fans about the new signees and to impress any class of 2015 and '16 recruits who may be watching. The coaches' meeting room was home to a pyramid of bricks in honor of Jones' "brick-by-brick" program-building philosophy. With each new signee, a coach added another brick. In one corner of the room was a fax machine festooned in orange and bearing the "brick-by-brick" mantra. While cameras from Tennessee's website and ESPN focused on the machine and the players names being affixed above, this machine was really a decoy.
Oh, it was a fully functional piece of archaic technology, but no recruits faxed their NLIs there. The real fax machine featured no adornment. It was good-enough-for-government-work beige, and it sat on a desk around the corner by the entrance to the offensive staff meeting room. Morrison and a compliance official stood guard, waiting to ensure every power T was crossed before forwarding the letters to the machine in the War Room. For example, kicker Aaron Medley couldn't get the fax machine on his end in Lewisburg, Tenn., to properly send a page that contained visible images of his name and signature. As Elder attempted to coach Medley through the process of sending documents the Gordon Gekko way, assistant to the head coach Chris Spognardi threw up his hands. "This is why fax machines suck," Spognardi said. Then he told the story of Marty Biagi, a folk hero of sorts in the coaching world who once faxed his résumé to hundreds of programs on National Signing Day because he knew coaches would be watching the fax machine intently. The gambit worked; Bobby Petrino hired Biagi as a graduate assistant at Arkansas.
At 8:48 a.m., a clear fax came through from O'Fallon, Ill., defensive end Dewayne Hendrix. The staffers who examined it were happy to see it, but their celebration paled in comparison to the one staged 15 minutes later in the War Room for the benefit of an ESPN camera crew. (This was not the celebration, however, that caused Jones to spill the contents of his "brick-by-brick" coffee mug.) The celebration may have been faked, but the enthusiasm was genuine. "That," one staffer said, "was a key brick."
Later, staffers gathered around the real fax machine and spoke in hushed tones about a "trade." The player Thigpen came into the office smiling about was 300-pound Nashville defensive tackle Michael Sawyers. His paperwork had just arrived. Sawyers had previously committed to Franklin at Vanderbilt, but when Franklin left for Penn State, Sawyers began looking around. He took a late visit to Tennessee, and he made his choice on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, McCalla, Ala., defensive end Cory Thomas had changed his mind. Tennessee coaches knew on Tuesday that they could lose Thomas to Clemson or Mississippi State, and on Wednesday, Thomas signed with the Bulldogs. Sawyers-for-Thomas wasn't exactly a trade. Tennessee coaches would have happily taken Thomas as well.
The loss of Thomas did ease the numbers crunch, though. For the past few months, reporters covering the Vols have tried to figure out how Tennessee could add as many as 35 scholarship players and not violate the SEC and NCAA rules that allow only 25 new scholarship players a year and 85 total scholarship players at any given time. Jones said the Vols were in constant contact with the SEC office to ensure they didn't sign too many. Some of the players who enrolled in January were counted against the 2013 total, so that eased the strain. Meanwhile, the Vols elected not to sign commitment Orlando Brown Jr. because of academic concerns. Brown, a massive offensive lineman from Duluth, Ga., instead signed with Oklahoma.
Still, Tennessee appears to have 32 incoming scholarship players for a class that Knoxville News-Sentinel beat writer Evan Woodbery calculated can only contain 31. (Like most programs, Tennessee would not release the actual number of players currently on scholarship. That number could also change throughout the offseason.) Asked by reporters on Wednesday how he planned to squeeze in everyone, Jones hinted that players might delay enrollment. This is known as grayshirting in the recruiting world. A player would delay his enrollment until January and count against the 2015 class. Tennessee may also attempt to "blueshirt" some players. To do that, a school can't officially recruit a player, meaning he can't take an official visit and coaches can't make in-home visits. The school also can't sign the player to an NLI, so any other school may still recruit him and offer a scholarship. He would essentially have to walk on and then earn a scholarship, but such a player would probably walk on with the understanding that a scholarship was forthcoming. If Tennessee is attempting to blueshirt anyone for the class of '14, coaches aren't revealing names. If they did, other schools would swoop in quickly with scholarship offers.
Besides, the Vols are too busy at the moment. They're celebrating Wednesday's haul and attempting to build the class of 2015. As faxes rolled in on Wednesday, Azzanni wrote notes to the next wave of recruits. Later, his phone buzzed with a FaceTime request from a class of '15 player. He waved over Jones, who immediately began selling. "You know what I'm looking forward to?" Jones asked the player. "To see what you're wearing for your press conference."
Later, the final two faxes rolled off the machine. They belonged to Evan and Elliott Berry, the twin younger brothers of former Tennessee star Eric Berry and the sons of former Tennessee star James Berry. So don't say Lane Kiffin didn't leave you anything, Vols fans. After all, Evan "committed" to Kiffin as an eighth grader. When defensive backs coach Willie Martinez placed the final two bricks representing the Berry brothers to complete the pyramid, Jones smiled. "Jenga," he said.
For Tennessee on Wednesday, it was mostly fun and games. The hard work had been done months earlier by coaches working to rebuild relationships and by an unusual group of recruits who made the decision to come to their home state school together and never wavered. In Nashville, the newest member of that in-state group picked up on the vibe. "It feels like Tennessee versus the world," Sawyers told The Tennessean's Maurice Patton. In Knoxville, the coaches exhaled, knowing they had taken advantage of an opportunity that may not come around again. "It was kind of the perfect storm for Tennessee," Thigpen said.