Losing programs succeed on recruiting trail

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 3, 2014 at 3:16 pm •  Published: February 3, 2014
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It usually turns more than a few heads when a top high school recruit commits to a struggling program.

There are many reasons, including the school's proximity to home, a relationship with a recruiter, the system the staff runs or maybe a new coach.

Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia have not had a lot of success recently — absent from bowls the past two years and going a combined 9-27 last season — but enter Wednesday's national Signing Day having landed some of the schools' best recruiting classes ever.

Kentucky's class, ranked 13th by Rivals.com., includes 6-foot-5, 380-pound defensive tackle of Matt Elam of Elizabethtown, Ky., a top prospect who turned down Alabama and Notre Dame to play for a Wildcats program that hasn't won a Southeastern Conference game since 2011 and is 4-20 the last two years.

Second-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said prospects don't just look directly at the wins and losses.

"They fully understand that we're in the process of building a program, and I think the big thing is keeping those prospects around us seeing what our plan is and seeing how we're developing that and what we plan on doing," Stoops said. "This has been one of the most unique experiences as far as recruiting goes that I've ever been around. The record doesn't even come up.

"They believe in what we're doing and where we're going."

Instilling that belief needs to start at home.

Tennessee's Butch Jones declared at his introductory news conference in December 2012 that the Vols "will own our state" with him as the coach.

After signing just two of the state's top nine prospects last year, Jones and his staff have received verbal commitments from five of the state's top six players according to 247 Composite, which takes the ratings of all the major recruiting services into consideration.

Jones, who replaced Derek Dooley, is coming off last year's 5-7 finish, and his staff has hit the roads to connect with players and coaches at several in-state high schools. The result is a No. 4 ranking by Rivals.com.

"Somewhere along the line that got lost," said Zach Azzanni, Tennessee's wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. "I don't know where or how or what exactly happened. But we really tried to rekindle that fire with our in-state prospects to get them to understand when you're Tennessee born, you bleed orange from the day you're born. ... I think we've been able to convince quite a few of them."

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