How Tennessee became hotbed for prep football talent

Photo: George Walker IV, Tennessean

How Tennessee became hotbed for prep football talent

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How Tennessee became hotbed for prep football talent

Lance Wilhoite has a list of college football options.

The Franklin Road Academy wide receiver, who is the top prospect in Tennessee for the Class of 2019 according to various national recruiting sites, lists Arkansas, Louisville, Florida State, Miami, Ohio State and Oregon among his top college choices.

Only one of the six is in the SEC, showing just how far Tennessee has grown in being recognized across the country as a place for top talent.

Tennessee is no longer a state that in-state SEC schools Tennessee or Vanderbilt owns as far as college football recruiting. Top prospects are now opening their options to national powerhouses outside the SEC as the state becomes one of higher recruiting importance.

“Tennessee has elite level – national level recruits,” said Barton Simmons, the 247Sports director of scouting. “It’s become a major priority beyond the Southeast programs.”

When Simmons first started writing about recruiting 14 years ago, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

Schools in the Southeast made the recruiting rounds in Tennessee. However, rarely did national powerhouses outside the SEC come calling with serious interest.

That, though, has changed.

Tennessee currently has 10 college football prospects among the overall top 250 in the 247Sports Composite rankings list for the Class of 2019. The composite is an average of all the major recruiting sites.

Tennessee’s 10 is tied for fourth with Mississippi for the best among the 12 states in the Southeast. That’s doubled from five prospects in the top 250 in 2010.

This year’s in-state list includes Wilhoite, who is listed as the No. 116 prospect in the country. Memphis University School’s Maurice Hampton, an LSU commitment, is at 142, and Christian Brothers’ Bill Norton, a Georgia commitment, is at 144.

Three more — Oakland’s Woodi Washington (182), Blackman’s Trey Knox (191) and Christ Presbyterian’s Kane Patterson (194) — also rank in the top 200.

But there is still room for growth. Tennessee is nowhere near the likes of Georgia and Florida, which have 26 and 37 prospects, respectively, in the top 250 for 2019.

Simmons said Georgia and Florida along with the likes of California and Texas are considered “Tier 1” states in that they produce the most top talent.

But Simmons believes Tennessee is solidly in the next tier with Alabama.

It’s why Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State and coach Urban Meyer signed two four-star athletes in 2018 in Franklin offensive tackle Max Wray and Blackman running back Master Teague.

That came a year after Clemson coach Dabo Swinney signed five-star wide receiver Tee Higgins of Oak Ridge and four-star wide receiver Amari Rodgers of Knoxville Catholic after the Tigers won the national championship.

Both Knoxville area athletes lived in the shadows of Neyland Stadium. And Rodgers’ father is former Vols quarterback Tee Martin.

“I can tell you with Clemson, the Vols being down a little bit helped,” Catholic coach Steve Matthews said. “You can swoop into Knoxville and get an Amari Rodgers or Georgia can get a (Catholic offensive lineman) Cade Mays.

“In the ’90s, it would have been a lock for them to go to Tennessee.”

Now as the Vols rebuild, they are in a state where national powerhouses believe Tennessee is worth recruiting.

How Tennessee’s population growth matters

More than 80 people move to the Nashville area every day, according to the U.S. Census.

“Surely one or two can play football,” Oakland football coach Kevin Creasy said.

That growth is the biggest reason Tennessee has increased its high school football image.

It takes only one or two top prospects to inch up the rankings and gain the attention of recruiters outside the state.

“Memphis has always been a cycled area,” Simmons said. “There is always talent in Memphis. That hasn’t changed and won’t change.

“But when I first got into this business, Middle Tennessee wasn’t really a priority for schools. A boom has taken place.”

The Titans haven’t hurt that increased recruiting exposure.

Former Ravenwood wide receiver Van Jefferson was the 106th overall college prospect when he signed with Ole Miss in 2015. He’s the son of former Titans receivers coach Shawn Jefferson.

And after 20 years in Nashville, there is now a second generation coming. Former Titans All-Pro safety Blaine Bishop’s son Chayce Bishop, a Class of 2020 athlete at Brentwood High, was recently made an offer by Vanderbilt, his first Power 5 offer.

“You are seeing a second generation of NFL guys come through, and some have big-time talent,” Simmons said. “One guy is a lot and can be impactful.”

And the NFL in general has helped put Tennessee on the map, Creasy said.

Creasy pointed to Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith, a former Catholic standout, and New England Patriots defensive tackle Shaq Mason, who starred at Columbia.

But that’s just the start.

Focused on more exposure

Memphis Whitehaven football coach Rodney Saulsberry might see from 15 to 20 of his seniors sign to play college football for the Class of 2019. Ten already have college offers.

In a city known for its high school basketball, the Tigers’ potential large football signing class speaks volumes for the area’s influx of talent.

“Basketball gets the headlines, especially in Memphis,” Saulsberry said. “But we’ve produced more football players than basketball players.”

That starts with exposure, Saulsberry said.

If that means Saulsberry drives across the state to Knoxville with some of his top prospects to visit the Vols, Saulsberry loads them up and takes them. If it means driving to a Rivals camp to get noticed by recruiting analysts, so be it.

“We are now focused on getting that exposure,” Saulsberry said, citing the chance to get college scholarships as a key reason to seek that exposure to college recruiters.

“Coaches and guys are taking the opportunity to take kids places. We want to show them how football can change their life.”

When Saulsberry became a head coach 14 years ago, he used to take athletes to combines across the South, including the U.S. Army Combine in San Antonio.

However, it has become a shorter drive in recent years. There are now Rivals camps as close as Nashville.

“Camps are going where the talent is,” Simmons said. “They wouldn’t come here if talent wasn’t here.

“If you are a college coach and you are coming to Nashville to recruit, now you’ll also go to Columbia. You’ll go to Clarksville, Murfreesboro and maybe up to Bowling Green. You can get to a lot of pockets in this area.”

For more, visit the Tennessean

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