The 2012 NFL Draft opened the eyes of a lot of people in the business of talent identification. That draft saw three prospects get selected in the first round out of the state of Tennessee, a state that often goes unmentioned amid discussions of the top talent-producers in the country.
If Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Louisiana are the equivalent of the country clubs of talent in the southeast, Tennessee is perceived as the public pool.
But perception isn’t necessarily reality in this case.
As a state, Tennessee has been on a steady incline in talent density over the last few years and that 2012 draft punctuated the rise nicely. To further dispel popular assumptions, that 2012 NFL draft class was far from an outlier.
In 2007 Patrick Willis and Justin Harrell, both Tennessee natives, were drafted in the first round. In 2008, Phillip Merling (Covington, Tenn. native who actually grew up in South Carolina) out of Clemson was the first pick of the second round. 2009 and 2010 each saw a Tennessee native go off the board in the first round (Michael Oher and Golden Tate respectively). Only in 2011 with Randall Cobb’s selection late in the second round was the state not represented with a prospect in first round range.
In the parlance of 247Sports ratings, Tennessee is good for at least one five-star level talent every year.
With that knowledge, let’s assume that Tennessee is a state worth winning on the recruiting trail. So who’s winning it?
Back to the NFL draft class of 2012: of those three players, only one played his college ball in state and that was Dontari Poe at Conference USA’s Memphis. Dont’a Hightower (Alabama) and Harrison Smith (Notre Dame) headed outside of state lines to get to the NFL
The other draftees mentioned above also took an out-of-state route. Cobb – Kentucky, Tate – Notre Dame, Oher – Ole Miss, Merling – Clemson and Willis – Ole Miss. Only Justin Harrell (Tennessee) decided to stay in state to pursue his football career.
In other words, the state of Tennessee is there for the taking. No one school has planted it’s flag and built a wall or dug out a pipeline but plenty are starting to battle for state supremacy.
Pros- No program carries stronger brand recognition in the Volunteer state than the Volunteers. Tennessee Orange is prevalent throughout the state and if Tennessee wanted to lock down the border, it likely could. The 100,000-plus that usually fill up Neyland Stadium converge from more than just Knoxville.
Cons- No matter the coach, Tennessee has always had an on again-off again relationship with Tennessee talent. With the exception of Randall Cobb’s departure to Kentucky, the Vols usually get the East Tennessee talent that they want but the talent gets progressively better in Tennessee the further west you go and traditionally, it takes a 6-hour drive to Memphis to get to the state’s best. Over the course of that six hours, the bright orange fades significantly.
2013 projection- When you look at the top prospects in 2013 in the state of Tennessee, the Orange T is shows up early and often at the top of the list but it is hardly a dominating effort. The Vols likely have the slight lead in state for the 2013 class but plenty of scenarios could put that lead in doubt including a Jordan Wilkins flip from Auburn to Vanderbilt and/or a Jason Carr decommitment from the Vols.
Pros- As is the case with most aspects of the Vanderbilt program, James Franklin has got Vanderbilt in the fight where it has largely been a non-factor in the past. The program is energized and an emphasis on in-state talent has Vandy in a position to win the state like never before. Vanderbilt also has a major advantage geographically. Its location in the center of the state makes it no more than a 3 hour drive from almost every elite player in the state. To that end, Vanderbilt has had some success in all three regions of the state since Franklin’s tenure began.
Cons- Vanderbilt’s academic standards are a major obstacle in winning the state of Tennessee. Often some of the state’s top prospects, particularly in Memphis, are simply unrecruitable for Vanderbilt due to grade concerns. Historically, Vanderbilt has had very little chance in beating out SEC powers for in-state players but the 2012 class changed that trend primarily in the signings of Brian Kimbrow and Andrew Jelks.
2013 projection- Currently Vanderbilt sits at second within Tennessee but a flip from the state’s No. 4 prospect, Jordan Wilkins could change the pecking order. Perhaps less likely but still possible are flips from USC commit Jalen Ramsey and Ole Miss commit Mark Dodson. With an 8-4 record as a realistic possibility, Vanderbilt could shake things up heading towards February.
Pros- The city of Memphis, particularly among prospects, has more allegiance to Ole Miss than any other program. Oxford, Miss. is a 30-minute drive from the most talent-heavy area in Tennessee and Hugh Freeze and staff are trying to make Memphis theirs. There’s no reason why they can’t.
Cons- For the same reason that Tennessee has trouble reaching across the state and getting a firm foothold in Memphis, Ole Miss has some geographical disadvantages in trying to own east Tennessee and middle Tennessee. The good news for the Rebels is that if you can win Memphis handily, you often have a great shot at winning the state.
2013 projection- Ole Miss doesn’t have a high-volume presence in Tennessee and sits in third among the major players but the Rebels are still in the mix with players like Tennessee commit Jason Carr, Four-star All-Purpose Back Corn Elder and Auburn running back commit Jordan Wilkins.
The party crashers
Signature signees- Dont’a Hightower, Lewisburg (Tenn.) Marshall County; Barett Jones, Ridgely (Tenn.) Evangelical Christian
2013 target- Jalen Ramsey
Alabama has been a bully in the state of Tennessee much like it has throughout the rest of the country. Though it doesn’t bring in big numbers from its northern neighbor, Nick Saban has no problem going in and poaching some of the state’s best. After stealing All-American talents like Jones and Hightower, Alabama is quietly hanging around with 247Composite five-star Jalen Ramsey in 2013.
Signature signees- None
2013 target- Cornelius Elder, Nashville (Tenn.) Ensworth
Ohio State isn’t a Tennessee regular on the recruiting trail but under Urban Meyer, assistant coach Tim Hinton has been very active in evaluating and recruiting the state. Now the Buckeyes are in great shape to potentially steal the most explosive athlete in the state in Elder. Hinton has also made some good inroads on a talented class of 2014.
Suddenly UCLA is a Memphis regular under Jim Mora Jr. and assistant coach Adrian Klemm. The Bruins already have a commitment out of Morris and they are hosting an official visit this weekend from Elder. A handful of offers in the 2014 class have already been extended in Tennessee as UCLA continues to work to extend it’s national reach.
Other Tennessee combatants- Mississippi State, Cincinnati, Arkansas State, Memphis, Kentucky, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Arkansas, Nebraska
The top recruiters that are regularly in Tennessee listed alphabetically
Tim Brewster, Mississippi State – In Brewster, Mississippi State has its big game hunter and within his three month of employment, he has already made the Bulldogs a player with the state’s best prospect, Jalen Ramsey.
Josh Gattis, Vanderbilt – One of the stars on a star-studded Vanderbilt recruiting staff, Gattis has made the city of Memphis a pro-Vanderbilt area in quick time.
Jay Graham, Tennessee – In his first year on Derek Dooley's staff, Graham established a solid presence in Nashville, landing Jalen Reeves-Maybin and positioning himself nicely for a few 2014 prospects like Josh Malone.
Maurice Harris, Ole Miss – A former head coach at Memphis power Whitehaven High School, Harris was a big part of a growing Arkansas State Memphis pipeline before continuing the progress under Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss.
Tim Hinton, Ohio State – In limited time, Hinton has made Ohio State a real player with some of the state’s best and suddenly the Buckeyes are looking very pretty for 2014.
Tim Horton, Arkansas – Arkansas quietly maintains a strong Memphis presence and Horton is steering the ship.
Lance Thompson, Alabama – A veteran of the state, recruiting it for both Tennessee and Alabama, when Thompson zeroes in on a prospect, it’s time for other programs to start sweating.
Note- Click on Start Photo Feature to get a glimpse of the top five prospects in Tennessee for 2014
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