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With Alabama, LSU, Ohio State and Florida State owning the top four spots in the Rivals.com Team Rankings, you'd think that one of the four power programs would boast this year's Rivals.com National Recruiter of the Year. Not so. While each program had many top recruiters reel in amazing talent, Tennessee's Tommy Thigpen takes home the coveted honor as he led the Volunteers to No. 5 in the rankings despite a sub-par season on the field. Thigpen, the Vols linebacker coach, had a hand in 17 of Tennessee's 31 signees either as the primary or secondary recruiter and simply did an amazing job on the recruiting trail.
"The obstacles that Tommy Thigpen had to overcome for the 2014 class are numerous," Rivals.com National Recruiting Director Mike Farrell said. "He arrived on staff from Auburn after that staff was decimated with the firing of Gene Chizik and landed at Tennessee forced to recruit some new areas immediately. And he had to keep much of the class together after the Vols lost four of their last five games to finish 5-7 (2-6 in the SEC) and miss a bowl.
"I've known Tommy Thigpen for many years and he's had some amazing recruiting years at North Carolina (where he was ACC Recruiter of the Year in 2007) and at Auburn, but I'm sure he'll be the first to tell you that this was his best effort yet. He has emerged as arguably the best recruiter in college football and big things lay ahead for him as a result."
Thigpen spoke of the honor of being named the Rivals.com National Recruiter of the Year.
"Rivals.com is the most recognized and most popular site in athletics," Thigpen said. "You guys are the pioneers of recruiting and player evaluations, so I'm grateful for the honor and grateful for Tennessee for allowing me to be part of the Butch Jones Brick by Brick crusade.
"It means a ton to me and I'm deeply appreciative. Tennessee is a great institution and we were able to recruit some high character young men who never wavered on their commitment. Butch Jones has been fantastic for the university and the program. Tennessee will thrive under his direction and leadership."
The list of prospects Thigpen was involved in recruiting is one of the most impressive lists ever compiled by a Rivals.com National Recruiter of the Year when you consider the things he had to overcome. He not only landed two five-star prospects in wide receiver Josh Malone and running back Jalen Hurd, he also landed four stars in defensive end Derek Barnett, linebacker Dillon Bates, defensive back Evan Berry, offensive lineman Dontavius Blair, defensive back Rashaan Gaulden, defensive back Cortez McDowell, defensive back D'Andre Payne, defensive tackle Michael Sawyers and linebacker Chris Weatherd (where he was secondary recruiter). Throw in three stars in athlete Elliot Berry, linebacker Gavin Bryant, athlete Neiko Creamer, linebacker Jakob Johnson, defensive back Emmanuel Moseley and defensive tackle Jashon Robertson, and you have one of the biggest hauls for one recruiter in Rivals.com history.
Thigpen helped Tennessee own the Vols' home state the way it should as Tennessee landed six of the top seven prospects in the state and nine of the top 15.
"It was a great strategy by Coach Jones of connecting people. Vic Wharton and Todd Kelly are childhood friends. Wharton and Gaulden became best friends at Independence, Gaulden and Barnett grew up together, Malone and Sawyers were great friends from long ago," he explained. "Hurd and Robertson's parents were best friends, so none of it was by accident. They were all connected some way or another, but it all came down to Coach Jones' plan and a lot of hard work by the entire staff."
Thigpen not only did a great job with the players he recruited, but he also made the parents comfortable with Tennessee. With both five stars the mothers of each raved about his efforts and how he kept things light and fun while focusing on a serious process.
"Coach Thig laid a foundation of friendship that Josh and our family will have for many years," said Rebecca Malone, Josh's mother. "He is fun to be around as well as very informative about football and many other topics. Quotes from Coach Thigpen on Josh's official visit: 'Josh, I need you to commit, my daughters need a treehouse;' and on the home visit: 'I will answer the door and tell Clemson you are not at home.' He made a stressful process fun."
"As confusing and exhausting as the recruiting process can be, it is a breath of fresh air when you meet someone as genuine as Coach Tommy Thigpen," said Tara Smotherland, the mother of Jalen Hurd. "He is certainly a people person that is very down to earth and has a lot of intelligence, charisma and passion about what he does. But he also likes to have fun and makes everyone around him laugh and feel at ease too.
"Coach Thig truly understands the needs and concerns of the recruits and their parents and when you spend time with him you soon realize that it's not just for show. He's not just saying all the right things, he's made it a point to do them all as well. He goes above and beyond to develop a relationship and friendship with your son and your family.
"One of the first times I was around Coach Thig the battery on my phone was about to die. I remember saying something under my breath to my husband like 'dangit, my phone's almost dead.' Well coach Thig overheard me, dropped what he was doing and you would have thought it was Defcon 1 in there. He started shouting 'Mama Hurd needs a charger, Mama Hurd needs a charger,' and within a minute I had like four chargers in front of me. That is a random story I know, but it simply shows how concerned and thorough and effective he was at completing the smallest task.
"It was important to me, therefore it was important to him. While recruiting Jalen, he was very consistent and diligent in his efforts. He spent a lot of time staying in contact with him by either talking to him on the phone or visiting with him in person. What I have found most impressive is how that dedication to our family never diminished once Jalen committed and then subsequently enrolled at Tennessee. Our bond with Coach Thigpen (and all of the staff) has only gotten stronger. As a mother, the depth of these relationships continually reaffirm that Jalen definitely made the right college decision when he chose the University of Tennessee."
And the schools Thigpen had to ward off for his recruits are a who's who of college football power programs. Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Ohio State, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU, Florida, Miami, South Carolina, Clemson and others were all heavily involved with prospects that Thigpen landed. Just a year removed from being out of a job, Thigpen finds everything a bit surreal.
"My time at Auburn was remarkable and I worked for a great man in Gene Chizik. When our time came to an end in Auburn, I knew I didn't want to leave the SEC," he said. "I was fortunate enough to have friends like Willie Martinez (secondary coach at Tennessee) and Brian Van Gorder (former Auburn defensive coordinator now at Notre Dame) who spoke on my behalf to Butch Jones. It wasn't long after working for him that I knew he had an energy about him to do great things and that was infectious. We a work as a great team here and everyone has a role with each kid that comes through Tennessee."
Mike Farrell is the national football recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. You can click here to follow him on Twitter.
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