Climer: Tennessee Vols staff looks close to home for recruits

3:59 PM, Jan 23, 2013   |    comments
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Unless you study the weird pseudo science of recruiting, the name Vonn Bell probably doesn't mean anything to you.

But if you're at all interested in the Tennessee Vols' success or lack of same on the football field, the name is important.

Bell is one of those All-Everything high school phenoms, a player of such talent and potential he has been christened with five stars by, which keeps hourly tabs on recruiting.

As a difference-making defensive back prospect, Bell is a prime example of the type of player new UT Coach Butch Jones has vowed to make his top recruiting priority. Jones has said the Vols "will own our state" in recruiting.

While Bell doesn't qualify as an in-state prospect, he's everything but. He played at Ridgeland High in Rossville, Ga., less than 10 miles from downtown Chattanooga.

On Monday, Jones took his entire defensive staff to meet with Bell and his family. Bell is scheduled to make his official visit to Knoxville this weekend.

Bell has indicated he will announce his college choice on Feb. 6, national signing day. From all indications, it will come down to Alabama, Ohio State and UT.

But UT is playing catch-up. For months, Bell listed Tennessee among his possible landing spots because of proximity to the UT campus, not because of any close connection with the Vols coaching staff.

"Coach Jones has done a great job of making up a lot of ground because of what the previous staff had done, or what it had not done," Ridgeland High coach Mark Mariakis said. "Before Coach Jones got the job, they never came down through here. There was no contact, no visits, not much of anything."

It is a telling statement, one that has popped up often in recent weeks. More and more, we are finding that there was serious recruiting malpractice on Derek Dooley's watch, particularly close to home. Dooley and some of his assistants failed to connect with high school coaches in the region. They didn't build and maintain relationships.

Part of that was because of the staff upheaval on Dooley's watch. He lost one assistant after the 2010 season and seven after 2011. That's quite a revolving door. The average high school coach didn't recognize the Vols assistant who was walking in and trying to make headway on some hot-shot recruit.

Whatever the case, it's suicidal to lose the connection to high school coaches in your neighborhood. Often, they are the gate-keepers in recruiting. You can't go around them.

Also, there was a painful lack of attention to detail. And when it comes to recruiting, the devil is in the detail.

Maybe that helps explain why so many quality in-state prospects have gotten away from UT recently and why Jones is struggling to put a Band-Aid on this recruiting class. Certainly, Vanderbilt's rise and the resonance of James Franklin's message have made the Commodores a factor. But other competitors keep siphoning off in-state talent.

It all begins with a prospect sheet. Even in an era of Internet overkill and recruiting combines, college programs still solicit information from high schools, large and small, in order to get a list of potential recruits.

While there may be a handful of prep coaches that don't bother filling out these sheets, most consider it their responsibility to get the word out on any players who might have a chance at a scholarship.

"I've never gotten a prospect sheet from Tennessee," Mariakis said.

From what Mariakis said, Dooley and his staff merely continued the approach Vols staffs have taken for years. Even Phillip Fulmer, who was known for dotting the I's and crossing the UT's in recruiting, dropped the ball.

"Sometimes people get on a high horse or a pedestal," Mariakis said. "They seem to be saying, 'If he's a Vol fan, he'll come to Tennessee.' That's not how recruiting works, especially these days."

Where UT and Bell are concerned, the 11th-hour push may be too little, too late. But whatever happens, give Jones credit for closing the gap and keeping the Vols in the game.

Moving forward, there's a lot more catching up to do.

David Climer's columns appear on Wednesday, Friday, Sunday and Monday. Contact him at 615-259-8020 or

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