Vols look to keep recruiting momentum despite support staff changes

Vols look to keep recruiting momentum despite support staff changes


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]ennessee’s 2014 recruiting class is off to a hot start.

Butch Jones has connected with former players and created excitement around the program, and the Vols have ridden that wave to seven verbal commitments, with four of those prospects ranked 4 stars by Rivals.com.

It could soon get even better. There have been hints on Twitter and elsewhere that other top prospects could be close to pulling the trigger for Tennessee before the Vols’ April 20 spring game.

But Jones has lost two members of his on-campus recruiting staff since March, and it will be interesting to see if that has any effect on that momentum.

Jones confirmed after Saturday’s practice that on-campus recruiting coordinator J.R. Sandlin has left the program.

“J.R. has moved on and is no longer part of the program,” he said. No further details were given.

Jones hired Sandlin away from Nick Saban’s Alabama off-field recruiting staff in December. A native of Tuscaloosa and former player at Central Florida, Sandlin was part of the Tide’s staff from 2010-12.

Those familiar with Sandlin say that he has an aggressive and creative approach. The Vols made headlines last month when Stanton Truitt, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound athlete from Monroe, Ga., 102 letters in a single day.

“The Tennessee staff had been telling me that everything we do, we are always going to do it plus-two,” Tuitt told ESPN at the time. “Every play you run, you want to get plus-two yards, take an extra two yards with the end zone. Everything you do, do it plus-two. That is why they sent me 102 letters.”

Last February, Saban famously sent running back recruit Alvin Kamara 105 recruiting letters in a day.

Keith Pantling, a recruiting assistant who accompanied Jones from Cincinnati, left the program last month.

The Vols closed the 2013 recruiting class with a thud, missing on several top prospects on Signing Day, but that hasn’t slowed the staff down for 2014.

Buoyed by a strong group of UT legacies — including 4-star defensive back Todd Kelly, Jr. (6-1, 190, Knoxville, Tenn. / Webb) and 3-star receiver Neiko Creamer (6-4, 220, Elkton, Md. / Eastern Christian), whose fathers played at Tennessee, and 4-star defensive back Vic Wharton (6-1, 172, Nashville, Tenn. / Independence) whose uncle played there — the Vols have gotten off to a fast start.

Last week, D’Andre Payne, a 4-star cornerback from Washington, D.C., became the latest recruit to give Tennessee his verbal pledge. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound speedster had offers from dozens of top programs, including Florida State, Vanderbilt, Maryland, Clemson, Virginia Georgia Tech, Stanford, Michigan and Ohio State.

Payne cited assistant Tommy Thigpen, the former Auburn and North Carolina assistant who is known for his recruiting ability and deep ties in the mid-Atlantic reason, as a key factor in his decision.

Tennessee only signed one running back in last year’s class, making that position a major priority, and that need was addressed in a big way last month.

Jalen Hurd, who is ranked a 4 or 5-star prospect by the various recruiting services, broke the Tennessee state single-season rushing record last year with 3,357 yards and 43 touchdowns despite missing the equivalent of nearly three full games. Hurd told the Tennesseean that he over 230 pounds — up from 210 last year — on his 6-foot-3 frame.

A day after Hurd chose the Vols, 3-star tailback Treyvon Paulk, a 5-8, 190-pounder from Milton High School (Alpharetta, Ga.) chose Tennessee. Paulk, who rushed for 1,200 yards and 17 touchdowns as a junior, also had offers from Ole Miss, Cal, West Virginia and Wisconsin, among others. Paulk cited his relationship with new UT running backs coach Robert Gillespie as a major factor in his decision.

Despite the early success, Jones and staff still need plenty of needs to address. The Vols would like to add more playmakers, as well as quality offensive and defensive linemen.

Jones says the search for Sandlin’s replacement is “ongoing,” and even though the on-field staff members get the credit, filling the recruiting support staff openings with strong hires will be critical in the Vols’ push toward a top-five recruiting class.

Photo Credit: Donald Page / Tennessee Athletics

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