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New faces leading the way for Vols

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- When Tennessee coaches hit the recruiting trail during the spring evaluation period, it won't on be the same paths they've traversed before. As a matter of fact, it won't even be the same coaches.

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is intent on keeping the same philosophy in place. Character building will always be his core sales pitch for prospects. The difference is Dooley has seven new assistants in place after a mass exodus of coaches in the offseason.

"We've had some turnover in our coaches, but our system has been the same," said Dooley, who was hired in January 2010. "This is our third year going at it and we can tell we finally caught up. We did a really good job working on the juniors in the fall and that's given us a good jump start going into the summer."

The new coaches mean new connections in areas that are new, as well as areas that were once owned the Vols. How well they fare in these areas could be the key to Tennessee's resurgence.

Baltimore/D.C./Northern Virginia

Tennessee hasn't traditionally gone hard in this area partly because the area hasn't traditionally been great in producing top talent. That has changed. Suddenly the DMV (D.C., Maryland and Virginia) is ripe with talent.

The Vols were in great shape to take advantage of that last season, but then Peter Sirmon, who had established roots in the area, left for Washington following the 2011 season and, suddenly, reeling in any 2013 prospects from the area seemed hopeless.

Enter Sal Sunseri.

The former Alabama assistant coach has successfully recruited the DMV for years and made quite the impression on coaches and recruits alike.

"I think he's very personable," said Washington (D.C.) Friendship coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim. "I think he is genuine. That comes out. I think he's a hard worker. I think he enjoys recruiting and it shows. The good ones enjoy it."

That connection could prove beneficial for Sunseri. Friendship has at least four BCS-level prospects on its roster.

Players noticed, too. Cyrus Jones, a four-star 2012 athlete from Baltimore Gilman chose Alabama over a number of schools in February, in part because of Sunseri's recruitment.

"I love Coach Sal," said Jones, who cited Sunseri's no-nonsense style as strength. "He still keeps in touch with my mom to this day."

Dooley knew he had to find a competent defensive coordinator when Justin Wilcox left for Washington with Sirmon. Finding a strong recruiter at that position was a bonus.

"He was a great fit on many fronts," Dooley said. "Obviously, we worked together [at LSU]. I know what kind of recruiter he is because I've been out in the field with him. It is a great fit because we've been in the same kind of organization, so he understands what we're doing and how we're doing it. Of course, he brings a tremendous presence as a recruiter, being a coordinator and having the ability to recruit, as well. The contacts he has is a big bonus."

While it would seem selling Alabama, a national champion, compared to Tennessee, which went 5-7 last season, is like selling Ferraris compared to Yugos, Sunseri sees similarities between the two.

"I think when you're recruiting, you're recruiting to the SEC," he said comparing the two schools. "You're recruiting to the SEC, which has won national championships, who has played great defense, who has great tradition here, and the bottom line is you're going to have a chance to come in here and play for an institution that has great football tradition."

He also sees a sales pitch he couldn't use with the Crimson Tide.

"You can be the reason why it changes back to the way it used to be. We're going to get you ready to play. We're not going to wait," he said of what the Vols can offer recruits. "The opportunity is going to be there for you."

When asked if Sunseri can recruit at the same level at Tennessee as he did at Alabama, Jones said, "Definitely, once people get to know coach Sal and see what type of person he is, what kind of job he does and how dedicated he is to the game and the way he relates to his players."

North Carolina

When Tennessee was great, North Carolina was a primary reason. In 1998, when the Vols won the national championship, many of Tennessee's top players were from the Tar Heel state.

This season, the Vols don't have one player from North Carolina on their roster. Dooley has even admitted Tennessee should have gotten more done in North Carolina since he was hired.

Enter coaches Sam Pittman and Jay Graham.

Pittman has vast ties in North Carolina, having worked on the Tar Heels' staff, and was named one of the top 25 recruiters by ESPN.com in 2011. Graham, from Concord, N.C., has recruited the area throughout his coaching career, most recently with South Carolina.

"It's a great area for me because I know most everybody," Pittman said.

North Carolina has changed since Tennessee's golden days, but a few things remain the same, namely that there is in-state power that has built a fence around the state.

"Obviously, when there's one powerhouse in the state, it's hard to go in there and steal kids from there," Pittman said. "There's so many teams in there that there's not a lot of loyalty to any one team from high school coaches."

Instead, out-of-state schools have owned the state. North Carolina's top 11 prospects in the Class of 2012 signed elsewhere -- Florida signed three, Clemson, Georgia and South Carolina each landed two and Ohio State signed one.

"It's a highly recruited state now and it's a highly talented state," Pittman said. "Right now, Florida has done a really good job in there. Everybody comes in there now. It's not like the old days."

Now the Vols coaches are just trying to get North Carolina prospects to take the scenic view over the mountains to visit Tennessee.

"Getting over here and seeing the program [is the key]," Graham said. "I think they're familiar with the program. When we were pretty good [it was] the Leonard Littles and all the guys that came from western North Carolina that made a difference. It's important for those guys who can travel here close to home to come over here and see the program."

Tennessee

You would think the Vols would rule the Volunteer state.

You would be wrong.

Tennessee signed only one of the top 30 prospects in the state last year. Others went, well, everywhere. Clemson, Alabama, Ole Miss, Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech were among the programs that raided the state. Even Vanderbilt signed six of those top 30 prospects.

And Dooley inherits an odd area in Memphis. Sure, it's in Tennessee, but it's nearly 400 miles from Knoxville. To put that in perspective, it's a shorter trip to Atlanta or Charlotte, N.C., or Tuscaloosa, Ala., than it is to Memphis.

"Memphis is always going to be a priority because it is Tennessee," Dooley said. "Even though it's six hours away, there's still a tremendous amount of alums in Tennessee. We get a lot of exposure because it's the in-state school and players have a lot of benefits from being in-state by coming here that they don't have going out of state.

"But having said that, we also recognize the challenges. It is further away than about four or five other SEC schools. That's what has made it difficult. Is it a priority? Of course it is. We're going to get in there and do the best we can. We've been very fortunate. We signed two really good football players out of there two years ago. I can't talk about what we have this year, but I think we're making some progress there."

The Vols have gotten off to a good start in Memphis, with a commitment from defensive lineman Jason Carr from Memphis (Tenn.) White Station. The Vols have also done well further east with commitments from receiver Camion Patrick from Lenoir City (Tenn.) High School and offensive tackle Austin Sanders from Cleveland (Tenn.) Bradley Central.

Yet the midstate area may define the Vols' success this year. With several top prospects in the Nashville area, Memphis now has a new rival for top talent producer in the state.

Enter Graham. Again.

Like North Carolina, Graham has recruited Nashville throughout his career, at Chattanooga, UT-Martin, Miami (Ohio) and South Carolina.

"You can just see over the years, football has gotten better and better," he said. "There are some good athletes coming out of there. There are some good football programs in that area."

Those athletes are often safe bets. With a strong group of well-respected private schools, prospects from there are usually academically eligible, mature and think about life after football. Graham can be something those prospects can shoot for. He's shown that a career at Tennessee can lead to success in life.

"I think parents can identify with me," said Graham, who played running back for the Vols from 1993-96. "I've went through this system. I understand this system. I've had success beyond my playing days and I think that's important for parents to understand. I got my undergrad from here [at Tennessee]. I got my masters from here."

Now, Graham is searching for the next Jay Graham. So are Sunseri and Pittman.

New faces all looking to make a big impression. And Tennessee's future could depend on it.