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The Necessity of In-State Recruiting

The state of Tennessee is loaded with talent. Data suggests it’ll stay that way.

NCAA Football: SEC Football Media Day Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Early returns on Jeremy Pruitt’s recruiting have been positive so far. The first year head coach was able to secure a top 20 recruiting class in 2018 after a complete malpractice of a coaching search leading to public embarrassment of the university. It sounds dramatic, but the effects on a recruiting class and general program reputation cannot be understated. As if Tennessee didn’t have enough to work on after going 4-8 for the first time in program history.

Most fans will tell you that they simply want a good game-day coach who knows how to utilize talent, rather than a proficient recruiter whose strengths lie off the field. It remains to be seen if Pruitt is one of these, both, or neither. But if Tennessee as a program wants to have more stability and rise to the top of college football, it needs to begin with raising the talent level.

One way to do that is to look inwards. Not into their mindset (that would help too) but inside the state of Tennessee, where recruiting is already heating up thanks to outside schools coming in and poaching talent.

Teams want the best talent regardless of where it comes from. But if they’re in the south and the home state is producing top tier players, it makes sense to devote more energy to local kids. If Pruitt plays his cards right, he could lock the down the state faster than expected.

Tennessee is accurately categorized as a “sleeping giant” of a program. Their in-state recruiting trends belie this fact. The truth is, Pruitt is sitting on a state that is now producing college football talent more akin to some of its neighbors.

Here are the numbers for the 2010-2020 recruits from the state of Tennessee. These stats are from the 247 Composite ratings, which became more popular around 2014 and 2015. Earlier years are a bit less accurate, but they don’t actually change the trend that becomes obvious.

Talent By Year

Year # of Blue Chips Top 200
Year # of Blue Chips Top 200
2010 5 2
2011 4 2
2012 7 1
2013 9 5
2014 7 4
2015 12 8
2016 8 1
2017 9 8
2018 12 5
2019 14 7
2020 9 8

When you split it into five year segments, it’s even more pronounced.

2010-2014: 32 blue chips, 14 in the top 200

2015-2019: 55 blue chips, 29 in the top 200

Note: This table is using the 247Sports composite rankings. Players who went to JUCO were counted in the years that they originally came out of high school.

Not only did the raw number of blue chip recruits increase—the number of top 200 talents more than doubled. From 2010 to 2014, a recruiting class could have some nice finishing touches with in-state kids. Now it could be based around them.

Population Growth

This influx is not all that different from the general shift in talent to the southern states. When a population boom started occurring in Florida in the late 70s, the state began producing elite talent. All three major programs soon became national championship winners.

The state of Tennessee has largely followed suit. In 1990, the state’s population was about 4,800,000. It increased 16.7 percent by the year 2000—which is right around when recent recruits were born. That’s a top 15 growth rate.

From 2000 to 2010, the state registered another top 20 growth rate with 11.5 percent.

Today, it’s almost 6,700,000. Another top 20 growth rate. Cities like Nashville are now considered some of the best in the nation, and the prep scene in east Tennessee has allowed for more exposure. Jalen Ramsey, Ty Chandler, Derek Barnett, Todd Kelly Jr., and Cade Mays are a few names that hail from the private school ranks. In addition, Memphis will always be another source to draw from.

So Tennessee’s recent talent output is not a short term phenomenon. It’s going to be a state that Power 5 schools will want to raid. That’s why getting someone like Pruitt was essential, because he’s a lights-out recruiter at every stop he’s been.

State Limits

Some would question whether or not focusing on in-state guys truly leads to the best possible team. Keep in mind that back when Butch Jones actually did a decent recruiting job in 2014, the Volunteers signed 5 of the state’s 7 blue chips. That includes guys like Josh Malone, Derek Barnett, Todd Kelly Jr., and Jalen Hurd. That was a class which helped lead them to a 2016 season where they won 9 games and maybe more if they had a better coach. More elite talent can absolutely set the foundation for championship programs.

That’s not to say that Tennessee talent can completely fill the roster needs. It still pales in comparison to what states like Florida, Georgia, and Alabama offer. Those three combined for over 400 blue chip recruits from 2013 to 2017.

That’s where Pruitt’s early results are especially promising: Pruitt has already secured three commitment from Top 200 Georgia players in 2018 and 2019. Butch Jones missed out completely on the 2017 Georgia haul, which left him with a 17th ranked class that contained an abysmal five blue chips.

Tennessee’s recruiting strategy is always going to be slightly different than their SEC East counterparts, since they’re the only major power in a state that produces a decent amount of talent. No other team in the division has a similar set of circumstances.

Georgia is the lone power in their own state with more than triple the number of blue chip prospects. Florida has to compete with Florida State and Miami in arguably the most talented state. South Carolina goes head-to-head with Clemson. The state of Kentucky has combined for less than 10 blue chip recruits in five years. A similar deal exists with Missouri. Vanderbilt will always plays second-fiddle to Tennessee.

If Pruitt can construct a reliable pipeline from other states, then it’s completely moot. Just as if he can mold 3-star players into their full potential, then it doesn’t matter as much. But most college football fans are aware by now that talent trumps all. From 2014 to 2018, Tennessee signed 20 of the 48 in-state blue chips. Even getting that number up to 50% would be a huge victory.

Similar Programs

So who should Tennessee compare to? In the link above, it turns out that Pennsylvania had the exact same amount of blue chips in the specified time frame. Penn State is the obvious power there. James Franklin’s first season was in 2014 as well, so the numbers are fairly easy to compare.

Pennsylvania produced 49 blue chip recruits from 2014 to 2018. Penn State signed just 18 of them. By this measure, Tennessee is doing exceptionally well. However it needs to be noted that in 2014, Penn State signed none of the 8 in-state blue chips. In the next four years, they had a much improved 18/41 mark—a little bit better than Tennessee did.

2019 is a very weak recruiting year in Pennsylvania (just two blue chips) so that will shift the lead back to Tennessee. The Nittany Lions under James Franklin have a very good mix of in-state recruits and then elite prospects from states like New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. If Pruitt is one to take notes, then Penn State might be the one to copy.

Which means it’s somewhat pressing that Tennessee begins to lock down their state. Georgia has ramped up their recruiting to absurd levels, meaning less and less of those top players will become accessible. One look at the 2019 class brings the realization that Tennessee might have just one more commitment from a Top 200 Georgia player.

2019 is probably too early to gauge progress inside the state. It’s Pruitt’s first season and the program is trying to rise from the ashes. That’s an extremely tough place to sell when Alabama, Georgia, and Auburn are all coming off great success with established coaches. It also makes sense when you view the numbers for James Franklin, who walked in to an arguably worse situation. It was only after that first season that he began to see dividends on the recruiting trail.

The real tests begin in 2020. By then, Pruitt will have a year under his belt and a staff which has built relationships over the previous couple of years. If he’s able to secure top classes with a wide mix of players, it won’t matter too much how many Tennessee natives he has committed.

But something tells me that he’s going to focus close to home.