When Nashville defensive tackle Michael Sawyers committed to the Tennessee Volunteers on national signing day morning, he uttered four words that sums up coach Butch Jones' pitch to in-state prospects:
"I'm a Tennessee boy," Sawyers told GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) shortly after his signing ceremony at Ensworth High School.
In recent years, those words meant little. Top players routinely would leave Tennessee for out-of-state programs or take their talents to Vanderbilt to play for former coach James Franklin. The Vols signed just one of the state's top 10 prospects in 2012 and three in '13, according to 247Sports.
Jones flipped that script in a hurry.
Once all the national letters of intent rolled in Wednesday, the Vols received signed scholarship papers from eight of the state's top 10 prospects, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
Jones believes Tennessee boys are supposed to stay home and play for the state school. It's a big reason why he said these words when he was hired back in December of 2012, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown:
Let me make no mistake about it: We are going to win first and foremost with the great state of Tennessee. We have tremendous high school coaches in the state, we are the state institution and we will own our state. We're going to be in every high school in this state, and our players are going to understand what it is to wear the power 'T.' They're going to understand what it means to represent their home institution, and I take great pride in that.
He was prepared to dominate the state, and he has. Sawyers' signing punctuated head coach Jones' first full UT class with an exclamation mark.
The long-time Vanderbilt pledge reopened his recruitment when James Franklin left for Penn State, opening the door for the Vols to receive a commitment from yet another of the state's top prospects in a banner year for in-state recruiting.
It wasn't like the Vols were signing Tennessee boys as filler for the class, either. This year's crop was the top in-state haul in years. Many of the team's top targets reside within state boundaries, and UT cleaned house.
Only Notre Dame offensive line commit Alex Bars—whose dad played for the Irish—and Murfreesboro safety/outside linebacker Emmanuel Smith (Vanderbilt) were ranked in the top 10 and went elsewhere.
Perhaps it's most appropriate that the bookend commits of the class—Vic Wharton on Christmas Day 2012 and Sawyers on national signing day 2014—live mere miles from one another in the Nashville area.
The fact that UT's pursuit for the nation's top talent began and ended in the state really cements the emphasis this staff put on owning Tennessee.
247Sports national recruiting analyst Barton Simmons told Brown in the linked article above:
Tennessee's dominated in-state this year, and what a year to dominate. It's one thing to say you're going to put a wall around the state and get all the big kids, and it's another thing to do it, and Tennessee really has just knocked it out of the park this cycle.
This is probably as talented of a year as we've seen in a long, long time. When you consider that Vanderbilt has been surging some, and most of the talent this year was in Middle Tennessee, for Tennessee to kind of sweep the area the way they did, I think it speaks volumes about the job that Butch Jones is doing on the recruiting trail.
The next step is to see whether Jones can continue the in-state dominance. With the prospects the state of Tennessee has lined up the next two years, a major portion of this rebuild can take place in UT's own backyard.
The opportunity to steal Sawyers presented itself when Franklin left, but Jones already had made a strong statement prior to then. He was able to earn Sawyers' signature despite overtures from stellar recruiting programs like Ole Miss, Texas and Notre Dame.
It's exactly the kind of hotly contested battle Jones will have on his hands every year for players state-wide who will be nationally recruited prospects.
If Jones and his assistants keep the deadbolt on the door to Tennessee prospects, they'll keep finding their classes' core in the Volunteer State.
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