NASHVILLE -- I don't know if it's chain-link, picket or invisible, but Butch Jones is making good on his vow to build a fence around the state of Tennessee when it comes to recruiting.
The pledge of UT allegiance by Station Camp High wide receiver Josh Malone was the latest brick in the Vol. Seven of UT's 33 verbal commitments – a class that is ranked No. 2 in the nation by Rivals.com -- are Tennessee residents. If offensive lineman Charles Mosley of Bruceton commits to the Vols as expected, it will be the most in-state players headed to UT since the 11-player collection in 2007.
The Vols didn't get everybody. Vanderbilt landed Michael Sawyers of Ensworth, Jashon Robertson of MBA and Emmanuel Smith of Murfreesboro Oakland. Alex Bars of MBA is bound for Notre Dame.
All things considered, though, UT's homegrown talent haul is in keeping with Jones' pledge on the day he was named Vols coach.
"We are the state institution, and we will own the state," Jones said at the time.
The obvious counterpoint: Recruiting lists are all well and good but given the outcome of the last two matchups, it's fair to say Vanderbilt holds the deed when it comes to what happens on the field.
But for UT's downtrodden program, hope springs eternal. And there is nothing to engender hope within a fan base like the latest recruiting roundup.
Jones has reversed a trend. Last year, local prime prospects Jalen Ramsey and Corn Elder went to Florida State and Miami, respectively. Derek Dooley's last full recruiting class in February 2012 included just three in-state players while the Dooley-Lane Kiffin crossover class in 2010 had only two.
Whether due to coaching turnover, bad recruiting practices or other factors, Tennessee football simply didn't resonate with some Tennessee prospects over the last handful of years. They had wanderlust. When a player like Dont'a Hightower of Lewisburg signs with Alabama, makes All-America and is a first-round draft choice by the New England Patriots, it leaves a mark.
At times in the past, loading up with in-state talent wasn't the best way to go. Compared to nearby states, Tennessee high school football just didn't measure up. If you didn't branch out into other states, you were doing yourself and your program a disservice.
But this year is different. With true blue-chip talents like Malone, Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr., top-tier prep prospects from the state can play with anyone. While Tennessee high school football still doesn't produce the quantity of prime prospects like some neighboring states, the quality at the top is unquestioned.
The recruitment of Malone is an interesting case. It's a situation where the player worked the system, not vice versa.
A couple of weeks before he committed, Malone signed grant-in-aid papers with four schools -- UT, Clemson, Florida State and Georgia. By using a loophole in a new rule, he eliminated some of the restrictions in the recruiting process.
Malone was able to have repeated face-to-face meetings with coaches from those schools. Jones visited him three times in a 10-day period. Georgia coach Mark Richt mentioned him by name to the media, which would have been a rule violation if Malone had not been effectively a "signee" of the Dawgs – as well as the Vols, Tigers and Seminoles.
Look for the NCAA to close that loophole post haste. By then, though, Malone already will be on the UT campus since he plans to enroll in January and participate in offseason workouts and spring practice. He is one of a dozen or so players expected to be early enrollees at UT.
Those early enrollees will help ease some of the numbers crunch that UT's recruiting haul has created. Both the SEC and NCAA keep count of recruits. An SEC bylaw limits each school to 25 signees. NCAA rules allow 25 new enrollees per year with a maximum of 85 scholarship players on the roster.
However, schools can "back-count" signees on the previous year's class. UT signed 22 players last year but counted two of them against the 2011 total. With that, five members of this recruiting class who are early enrollees can be counted against the 2012 total.
That still leaves the need for some creative accounting via such common practices as gray-shirting (having players wait until January 2015 to enroll), steering academic risks to junior college or otherwise telling commitments to take a hike.
Given the state of UT football, making the numbers work is the least of the Vols' problems.