For years under Mark Richt, Georgia supplemented its in-state recruiting in one of the most talent-rich states in the country by dipping into neighboring Florida, an even deeper state in terms of high school football talent. You don’t have to go back that far to find highly recruited stars like Aaron Murray and Orson Charles – guys that set the table for the Dawgs to sign 12 Floridians in total from 2014-2017. That list includes recent names like Isaiah McKenzie as well as standouts on the current team such as Sony Michel, Isaiah Wynn, and Riley Ridley.
By doing work over a long period of time to establish a brand in Florida, Georgia has set itself up to seriously compete with the Sunshine State’s Big Three and pull big timers out of the state, and Kirby Smart is capitalizing on that in the current class of 2018. Georgia is a legit contender for highly recruited guys like former FSU RB commit James Cook, WR Anthony Schwartz, and DBs Tyreke Johnson, Gilbert Frierson (Miami commit), and Nadab Joseph (LSU commit). They are going head to head with FSU, Miami, and Florida for these kids, and are serious contenders for all of them.This isn’t by accident, because Smart is necessarily a great recruiter, or because the Bulldogs have former Miami assistant James Coley on staff. Those are all potential factors, sure. But it’s mainly because the program has developed deep ties in the state, both via high school staffs as well as constantly having Floridians on the roster who have blazed that trail.
Why this matters for Tennessee
After signing five players from Florida in the class of 2016, Butch Jones and Co. followed that up by signing seven Floridians in 2017. That’s 30% of the last two signing classes from the state of Florida. All of those players have bright futures and are even expected to be contributors to Team 121. Notably, however, with the exception of OL Marcus Tatum and WR Latrell Williams in 2016, UT didn’t have to seriously fight any of the Big Three for these kids.
So far for the class of 2018, the Vols have three Florida natives on the commitment list: QB Michal Penix and DBs Tanner Ingle (who I am a big fan of), and Brandon Cross. These three players are very well thought of and the staff loves each of them after seeing them camp multiple times. However, UT isn’t having to compete with FSU/Miami/Florida for any of them, at least at this point*. Interestingly, of the remaining FL players on the 2018 board – WR Shocky Jacques-Louis, WR Jeshaun Jones, the aforementioned Schwartz, and DE Kayode Oladele – three of them have legit offers from at least one of the instate powers.
What Butch Jones is doing here is playing the long game. By establishing a strong presence in the state of Florida, albeit so far mostly with players for whom he hasn’t had to fight the Big Three, he’s setting up the Tennessee program to be a legitimate contender for players that those in-state powers do want going forward, perhaps even in the immediate future. An interesting thing about kids from Florida (especially those from South Florida who grow up knowing nothing but the Miami program and its empty off-campus stadium and absence of a true fan base) is that they are almost always blown away when they visit Knoxville and the UT campus, which is all the more reason for the significant investment in the state both in terms of attention. The Vols have also already offered a ton of 2019 and 2020 kids from Florida, and the staff spent a lot of time at satellite camps in the state during the spring. More importantly, with OC Larry Scott and now WR Coach Kevin Beard, the Tennessee staff has ties to the state. If those guys can get Florida kids to campus, then UT almost always has a real chance to land them, and both of them have serious juice (hat tip to Jesse Simonton from Volquest.com for the term) in the state.
As the state of Tennessee churns out more and more elite players, it will allow UT to not only fill a larger and larger portion of its roster with big time in-state talent, but also be pickier about who it recruits from outside its borders. The Vols already have Georgia as one state it’s been able to depend heavily on for out of state blue chip talent; already four of UT’s 2018 commits hail from the Peach State, and they are fighting hard for a few more. States like North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, and Ohio have provided Tennessee with some great players over the years, but they haven’t been consistent producers for the Vols and instead have been states where UT can cherry pick a player or two every cycle. However, if this investment in Florida pans out and Butch develops another area from which he can consistently land elite players, this would be a game changer for the program. I think this is an incredibly smart strategy Butch is pursuing, and I anticipate that the fruits of this will begin to show up shortly with the Vols winning more and more head-to-head battles with the Big Three for elite talent from the Sunshine State, just like Georgia has been able to do for quite a while.
*It must be said that Ohio State and others continue to sniff around Penix and both Ingle and Cross have really nice out of state offer lists.