Kentucky, Tennessee building momentum

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HOOVER, Ala. -- Never before have two programs that accomplished so little the season before been discussed so much.
Coming off of a year in which Kentucky and Tennessee combined for one victory in SEC play -- when the Volunteers beat the Wildcats -- each has replaced its head coach, gone on a run in recruiting the likes that neither has seen and spent many summer mornings in the headlines instead of the back pages.
Tennessee sits atop the Rivals.com team recruiting rankings, while Kentucky is No. 4 nationally. The excitement for their programs has been a blessing to Butch Jones and Mark Stoops, and the buzz is trickling down to the local level.
At the National Select 7-on-7 presented by Under Armour, Knoxville (Tenn.) Fulton head coach Rob Black said the community is ready to get back in its Tennessee Orange.
"Football has always been big here in Knoxville, but honestly Coach Jones and his staff have given Knoxville a lot more energy than it has had in a long while," Black said. "People in the area are not only looking forward to high school football, but they can't wait to see the Vols back on the field."
Fulton won the Tennessee Class 4A championship last season, and it is led by a trio of athletes on offense. Quarterback Penny Smith is listed at 6-foot-2, 181 pounds, running back Daryl Rollins-Davis is a 5-foot-10, 173-pound speedster, and slot receiver Xavier Hawkins checks in at 5-foot-9, 171 pounds.
None of the three holds an offer from Tennessee, although programs such as West Virginia are starting to show more interest.
Black said the Tennessee staff is doing a great job, even if his players haven't received offers.
"Jones made it very clear that he wants to lock the doors on Tennessee, and I really think he is doing that," Black said. "You look at what they are doing in recruiting, and it is impressive -- at least from what I have seen."
Four of the top seven players from the state are committed to Tennessee.
Four-star running back Jalen Hurd is the headliner, and he is joined by four-star defensive backs Todd Kelly and Rashaan Gaulden. Athlete Vic Wharton rounds out the quartet.
Only Notre Dame has come in to land a top 10 player. Offensive tackle Alex Bars pledged to the Fighting Irish.
Wide receiver Josh Malone, linebacker Petera Wilson, athlete Derek Barnett and offensive lineman Charles Mosley are uncommitted, while defensive back Emmanuel Smith has given his word to Vanderbilt.
At SEC media days, Jones said there is a process to improvement on the field and in recruiting.
"First thing is focusing on our current team," he said. "Making every player on our football team a better person, a better football player, a better student. Just total improvement in every aspect of their lives. Again, our players have answered that challenge.
"The next phase is continuing to recruit a high-caliber character student-athlete. I think that's critical for the long-term success of Tennessee football. Having individuals who understand it is a responsibility that comes along with playing football at the University of Tennessee."
Lexington (Ky.) Catholic head coach Bill Letton similarly said that Stoops and the new regime at Kentucky are making a positive impression.
"We have done a bunch of 7-on-7 tournaments, and there are more people talking about Kentucky than I can remember," he said. "There are a lot of people ready for the program to take the next step and get out of the bottom of the SEC.
"I don't think that anyone has come into the job with a long-term plan for success at Kentucky until now. Coach Stoops and his staff understand what it takes, and they understand recruiting."
The commitment list for the Wildcats boasts four players in the Rivals250 presented by Under Armour. The most highly ranked is running back Stanley Williams at No. 96 in the nation.
Williams is joined by quarterback Drew Barker, who is ranked No. 117; running back Mikel Horton at No. 131; and receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass at No. 205.
Lexington Catholic has prospects coming through the next three classes. The seniors are headlined by 5-foot-10, 175-pound running back Marcelis Logan, who has offers from Akron and Kent State but not Kentucky. The junior group features quarterback Reese Ryan, who at 6-foot-3, 180 pounds has Louisville and Illinois interested. Letton believes his son -- class of 2016 prospect Sam Letton -- could gain interest as a tight end or linebacker at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds.
Bill Letton said his interactions with Stoops have been positive and that he understands the reasons for the success in recruiting despite the lack of on-field results.
"(Stoops) and his staff have really tried to do whatever we as high school coaches have asked of him," Letton said. "He has opened up practices to us, opened meeting rooms, opened his coaches for X-and-O talk.
"The best thing about him has been how he interacts with people. He is very personable, and there is no arrogance there. His honesty has made it very easy to build a relationship with him."
The resulting boost in awareness for the program has been met with appreciation from Stoops, who said prospects have noticed the increased attention.
"It's just been very positive," he said. "Everything has been positive. From the moment I arrived on campus at Kentucky, I just felt so good about the support. The people are starving to have a good football program.
"I think that carries over to recruits. I really do. I think our current players and our recruits feel all the positive energy. They feel the fan base getting behind us. With social media, all the different aspects, you can reach a lot of kids. I believe they're feeling that energy, and it certainly is helping."
Black said the personality change with Jones at the helm in Tennessee will help.
"I have been around here long enough to remember how Phil Fulmer interacted with people, and this reminds me a lot of that," he said. "(Lane) Kiffin wasn't really around long enough to get to know, and Derek Dooley did not have the same personality as Butch or Fulmer.
"I was never turned away by Kiffin or Dooley, but it wasn't like it is now. There is an open-door policy in place, and to have that type of resource right down the street is great. I think that how you treat people is important, and I know it is in recruiting."
How this offseason attention is spun will be determined once the season kicks off in a month. Kentucky opens with Western Kentucky, and Tennessee hosts Austin Peay.
"I have been to five or six practices," Black said. "I think there is a new energy, not just in recruiting but on the field. Of course I haven't seen them against anyone but themselves, so who knows?
"But there is a lot of excitement for the first time in a few years."
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