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One committed a few weeks before Christmas -- and began classes just after New Year's.

Another committed almost immediately after the new coach arrived, 13 months ago.

Yet another committed last month, ending a year-and-a-half-long commitment to an in-state archrival.

They are among seven Midstate football players who will be freshmen at Tennessee this fall, and they're part of a larger group that forms arguably the greatest collection of college football prospects to come out of this area.

"I think the state of Tennessee has had some outstanding classes, but when you narrow it down to Middle Tennessee, this group has a really good case for being as good as any group we've had," said Nashville's Barton Simmons, a national recruiting analyst for 247sports.com. "The more I think about it, the more confident I get in it.

"You've got star power, you've got a lot of depth. It's probably as good a group as there's ever been."

The group's validation comes primarily from the UT influence, but it certainly doesn't end there. Also represented in the 2014 class on signing day Wednesday will be Vanderbilt, Missouri, Notre Dame and Syracuse, among others.

"I think there have been times where (the Midstate talent) has been as top heavy, where you've had guys in your Top 10 that were highly rated and going to BCS schools, but the overall depth wasn't there," said Jesse Johnson of Rivals.com. "We do a Top 25 prospects list and there are some guys that could go FBS that are left off the list. I'm not saying all of them will go FBS because opportunities dry up as time goes on. But there are legitimately about 30 guys in this class in Middle Tennessee that could go FBS."

Nineteen Midstate players are either committed to or have already enrolled at FBS schools. Two others have decommitted from FBS programs.

All 12 members of The Tennessean 2013 Dandy Dozen have committed to BCS programs.

By comparison, last year's Dandy Dozen featured just five BCS signees. In 2008, the first year that the Dandy Dozen was selected, all 12 signed with BCS schools. Eight of the 2011 selections were BCS signees.

Of that 2008 Midstate recruiting class, eight were listed in rivals.com's postseason state top 20 prospects with five in the top 10. This year's local class includes 14 on rivals.com's postseason top 20 and eight in the top 10.

Securing the state

"I think high school football in Tennessee in general has continued to get better and better, and Nashville and Middle Tennessee in particular, because of population," said Winchester native and former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer. "You've got more people moving in. Coaching has gotten better as competition has grown. There's more exposure, with kids going to camps and playing 7-on-7 -- developing at younger ages. There's more focus on specializing in one or two sports.

"There are good players in Memphis every year, but there seem to be more and more good players in Middle Tennessee here lately. I don't think you can say (the talent) has shifted, but it's making a shift."

And in Fulmer's estimation -- as well as others -- wherever the talent is, the Volunteers should be as well.

For coach Butch Jones to put his flag in the ground this year, in particular, was vital to getting his UT coaching tenure off to a successful start. Though he has coached one season in Knoxville, this is generally recognized as his first recruiting class considering the lateness of his arrival following the 2012 season.

"Before (James) Franklin left, Vanderbilt was doing quite a bit of work there and was really the more attractive product on the field," said Mike Farrell, national recruiting director for rivals.com. "Tennessee has the facilities, the fan base. They should not struggle in that area. We're seeing more talent in (Middle) Tennessee and the Nashville area over the last few years than we have in a long time. Butch needed to take care of the city.

"It used to be kids grew up wanting to play for Tennessee, they'd never heard of James Franklin and Vanderbilt was an afterthought. That wasn't the case when Butch got hired. He'd had more of a challenge than any other coach coming into Tennessee in a long time, and he's done a great job of keeping the kids in-state."

Securing a pair of top recruits would have been important no matter where they played high school ball, but getting Beech running back Jalen Hurd and Station Camp receiver Josh Malone took Tennessee's 2014 class from impressive to one of the nation's best. Hurd and Malone are ranked among the top 50 recruits in the country by rivals.com and 247sports.com.

The Vols class is ranked fourth nationally by rivals.com and sixth by 247sports.com.

"Middle Tennessee was really talent-rich this year, and I think (the UT staff) has done a great job of making their presence felt with a new attitude, a new way of doing things," said Independence coach Scott Blade, who arrived from Oak Ridge and inherited Volunteer commitments RaShaan Gaulden and Vic Wharton for their senior seasons. "They've made a great effort to reach out and be accessible and approachable.

"They've done a good job of recognizing you've got to get those in-state guys first, and that excitement builds with the fan base. They've attacked it in a really good way."

Wharton effect

Relationships are typically the key to the recruiting process, and Jones had already built one with Wharton during his Cincinnati tenure. Once Jones was hired at UT, Wharton quickly followed and became his first commitment.

"With (Derek) Dooley at Tennessee, I feel like I wasn't going there," Wharton said. "Coach Jones made it a lot more family-oriented, made it feel like the place to be. He's done a great job bringing the program back."

After Wharton, other local standouts fell like dominoes. Wharton committed on Christmas of 2012, with Hurd following last March. Marshall County kicker Aaron Medley did so two months later, and Gaulden committed in July.

In early October, Derek Barnett -- who played with Gaulden when both were sophomores at Brentwood Academy -- joined the fold, and Malone committed in December.

"I think the deciding factor for all of us was the chance to represent your home state," Wharton said. "When you leave and then come back 20 years later, nobody knows who you are. If you went to (an out-of-state) school and you come back and you have to tell people, 'I played football at Missouri' or wherever.

"That's stuff we all talked to each other about. I thought we had a big influence on each other, in trying to win the state. Me being the first to commit and having conversations with coach Jones, that was what he told me, we wanted to win the state, and that's what we did. We couldn't have done it better than we did it."

Adding Malone and MBA's Jashon Robertson, a Vanderbilt commitment from before his junior season, put an exclamation point on the UT class locally.

"There was never really a point I didn't think we had a good chance to get Josh," Wharton said. "He's from here, he saw what we were doing getting all the in-state recruits and that we were ranked in the top five classes in the country. Everybody wants to play for their in-state school.

"When coach Franklin left Vanderbilt, we knew that was really going to hurt their class. (Jones) didn't have that much of a relationship with Jashon at first because they hadn't recruited him that hard, but that's the great thing. You can't help but love the man."

Regardless of their college destinations, Robertson said the 2014 prospects are mindful of putting the Midstate on the recruiting map.

"All of us guys coming out in this class are committed to bettering the state of Tennessee and the view, the stereotype of Tennessee football," he said. "That's why we're all coming together and congratulating each other on whatever school we're going to.

"There is definitely some kind of bond and some kind of chip on all of our shoulders about how people view the state of Tennessee in football."

That chip may be setting the tone for local classes to come.

"This is definitely a class people are recognizing," said Christ Presbyterian Academy coach Ingle Martin, who is sending two players to Missouri. "And people are saying 2015 has even more depth, so we'll be anxiously awaiting that."

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