- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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The last of the faxes had long since arrived last Wednesday on national signing day when Tennessee coach Butch Jones took a moment to soak it all in while lounging in his office.
Jones never really lounges, per se. He was still fielding phone calls from some of the Vols' 2014 signees, not to mention some of their top prospects for the 2015 class, and recruiting as fervently as ever. But in between his cell phone blowing up with calls, he peered across his desk and stated what was front and center in a class ranked No. 5 nationally this year.
"We've got to own this state," Jones said. "I know a lot of coaches say that, but it's something we take very seriously. For us to get back to where we want to be, the Vonn Bells and Jalen Ramseys can't leave the state."
Bell and Ramsey were both ESPN 300 prospects who left the state in Jones' first class. Bell went to Ohio State and Ramsey to Florida State.
"It was a reminder of how important this state is to us," Jones said. "We wanted to make it even more of a priority in this class."
Sure enough, of the Vols' 33 signees, 10 were from the state of Tennessee, including eight from the mid-state area. That's particularly important because the population in and around Nashville is booming, and the high school talent in that area is getting better all the time.
There were two must-gets from the Nashville area in this class -- running back Jalen Hurd and receiver Josh Malone -- and the Vols got them both. Even more important, both are already on campus as early enrollees and figure to have a big impact as true freshmen. To get them, the Vols had to fend off the likes of Clemson, Florida State, Georgia and Ohio State.
"They bought in to what we're building here," Jones said. "They want to be part of the group that brings Tennessee football back to its rightful place. And being Tennessee kids, that's even more special."
Malone's cousin, Mikki Allen, played on Tennessee's 1998 national championship team, but Malone didn't really grow up a Tennessee fan. The same goes for Hurd, who felt unappreciated by the previous staff at Tennessee.
Jones and his coaches had serious work to do with both players when they landed in Knoxville and went to painstaking efforts to show Hurd, Malone and really all of the in-state prospects that it was a new day on Rocky Top. There were also hurdles to overcome with other coveted prospects from the state, including safeties Todd Kelly Jr., and Rashaan Gaulden and defensive lineman Derek Barnett.
"Gaulden’s favorite school as a kid was Miami," said Tommy Thigpen, Tennessee's linebackers coach and one of the Vols' ace recruiters. "TK’s sister is a cheerleader at Alabama. Derek Barnett’s granddad played at Ohio State. Hurd hated Tennessee, because when they came up, nobody ever offered him from the old staff. Other schools were trying to get them to come on visits. But they were such a tight-knit group that when one of them talked about visiting another school or another school was pushing them to come, the pressure from their peers and teammates was so great that they didn’t.
"When kids get other kids committed, they’re less likely to go anywhere else. They don’t want to let down their peers. That’s what was the most unique thing about this class, that none of those kids took official visits anywhere else. They were highly recruited, high character kids. It wasn’t by accident that they were a close-knit group. They committed, and they never looked anywhere else. The best sellers of the team are those guys recruiting other great players, and it was not from instruction by the coaches. They wanted to have other great players around them."
Jones said the Vols got everybody they wanted from the state in this class with the exception of ESPN 300 offensive tackle Alex Bars, who went to Notre Dame. Tennessee was also able to get a pair of in-state defensive linemen away from Vanderbilt. Michael Sawyers and Jashon Robertson had previously committed to the Commodores before re-opening their recruitment after James Franklin left for Penn State.
"It goes back to the relationships," Thigpen said. "Butch does the best job in America with the communication and the constant mailing and constant direct messaging on Twitter and Facebook and always coming up with new ideas. These kids can get bored with it real easily, but he does a good job of always changing it up and doing different things."
2dSam Khan Jr.
3dSam Khan Jr.