KNOXVILLE — As an assistant coach at Auburn the previous four seasons, Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen is pretty familiar with heated in-state recruiting battles.
The Tigers and Alabama have had plenty of memorable bouts over talented prospects through the years, but for a long time UT's Volunteers were rather unchallenged within their state borders.
The emergence of Vanderbilt under third-year coach James Franklin and the rise of the state's recruiting profile, though, have made it a little trickier for Tennessee in its home state, and while the outcome of Saturday night's game between the Vols and Commodores won't swing a bunch of recruits one way or the other, it's certainly important in terms of perception.
"It says a lot, because we're battling for the same players," Thigpen said this week. "A lot of the same players they want are the same players we want. For us to take this game, it means a lot as far as the in-state battle and the in-state rivalry.
"Coach [Butch Jones] has really played this one up and said, 'We are Tennessee.' For us to be successful, we've got to own the state of Tennessee, especially in certain areas like Nashville and Memphis and, of course, Knoxville. This game is a huge factor in doing that."
At least in terms of the 2014 class in Tennessee, the dust is fairly settled.
The Vols have six in-state prospects committed and continue to chase two of their top priorities in Station Camp High School receiver Josh Malone, whose finalists are Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State, and Brighton High School defensive lineman Charles Mosley, whose other finalist is Alabama.
Should Tennessee land both of those players, it would end up with five of the top six players and six of the top nine in the state according to 247sports.com's rankings.
According to those same rankings, Vanderbilt has commitments from four of the state's top 11 prospects: Ensworth defensive lineman Michael Sawyers, Oakland safety Emmanuel Smith, Montgomery Bell Academy guard Jashon Robertson and East Hamilton cornerback Tre Herndon.
Jones said at his introductory news conference last December that he'd build his program from the inside out, and the Vols made an early splash by landing commitments from four-star Knoxville Webb safety Todd Kelly and five-star Beech tailback Jalen Hurd, who's among the nation's top overall prospects.
The Vols' other in-state commitments are Brentwood Academy defensive lineman Derek Barnett, safety RaShaan Gaulden and athlete Vic Wharton of Franklin Independence and Marshall County kicker Aaron Medley.
In the 2013 class, Tennessee's new staff held on to defensive tackle Jason Carr and flipped cornerback Malik Foreman from the Commodores to add to four other in-state players, while Vanderbilt signed four players out of Memphis.
Vanderbilt signed six in-state players to Tennessee's three in 2012, and the Commodores won head-to-head matchups against the Vols for tailback/return man Brian Kimbrow and Andrew Jelks, who's started eight games this season at right tackle as a redshirt freshman. Caleb Azubike also has been a two-year contributor at defensive end.
Patton Robinette, who played at Maryville just south of Knoxville, is Vanderbilt's backup quarterback who replaced injured starter Austyn Carta-Samuels in the Commodores' comeback win against Georgia and started in the win at Florida.
Tennessee's in-state class in 2012 was four-star receiver Drae Bowles, who's played special teams this season, receiver Cody Blanc and kicker George Bullock.
According to Rivals.com's rankings, Tennessee signed five of the state's top eight prospects in 2011, including the top two players in starting left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson and tight end Cameron Clear. Clear played at Texas A&M this season after he was dismissed from Tennessee following his arrest on theft charges.
In that class -- Franklin's first at Vanderbilt -- the Commodores signed Spencer Pulley out of Cordova and Joe Townsend out of Hendersonville. They have started every game at center and right guard, respectively, for Vanderbilt this season.
The state's talent level at the top has improved over the past three seasons. In 2011, according to Rivals.com, the state of Tennessee had just two players rated as four-star prospects. In the 2014 class, there are one five-star player and eight four-star prospects. There were nine players rated as either five- or four-star prospects in 2013 and 10 four-star players in 2012.
According to 247sports.com, the state already has nine four-star prospects for the 2015 class, and one of those -- Ensworth corner Donovan Sheffield -- has committed to Vanderbilt. The Vols already have 2015 commitments from two in-state offensive linemen: Coalfield's Zach Stewart and Oakland's Jack Jones.
"If you're in Alabama, you want to control the state of Alabama," Thigpen said. "If you're in Georgia, you want to control the state of Georgia. Everywhere I've been, if you've controlled that state in recruiting and you do a really good job of getting 80 to 90 percent of the players, you'll see a lot of success.
"Coach Jones, that's been his message from day one: Make sure we control the state of Tennessee, and then we'll work some areas as well. This is our main focus, this is our home, and what's more important is we keep all these guys here in our state."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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