Learning to relate

First-year Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is too focused on the future to talk about the shortcomings of his predecessor. Instead, Derek Dooley’s record speaks for itself. Three losing seasons may even be overshadowed by a slip in recruiting not seen in Knoxville for decades.

Jones took over the Volunteers program two months before signing day and was able to secure two ESPN 300 prospects. In almost a full year leading up to his firing, Dooley had only secured one. Jones would have liked to do more.

"I think we have a lot of building to do everywhere," Jones said. "It's selling our product. It's selling our brand. It's selling our vision. … What we have to do is continue to develop an affinity for the University of Tennessee that when a young man grows up, his dreams, goals and aspirations are to be running out in that Power T in Neyland Stadium. That's something we have to continue to develop."

The word "relationships" comes up often when talking with Jones about recruiting and rebuilding at Tennessee.

"We have to build relationships in all of our recruiting areas," he said. "That's one of the things where we really have to do a great, great job, because recruiting is based off of relationships."

In retrospect, wide receiver Marquez North from Charlotte (N.C.) Mallard Creek was the most important signing in Tennessee's 2013 class. By committing the week before national signing day, he helped provide the Volunteers with some much-needed excitement going into Feb. 6.

"I thought it created some great momentum," Jones said of North's commitment. "Obviously, North Carolina is an area we have to do well in. To go into North Carolina and get the No. 1 prospect in the state of North Carolina and one of the top receiver prospects as well, it built some momentum and credibility in what we were doing."

That helped the Vols land dual-threat quarterback Joshua Dobbs from Alpharetta (Ga.) High and defensive end Jason Carr from Memphis (Tenn.) Whitehaven.

Dobbs was previously committed to Arizona State. Carr was a longtime Tennessee commitment who told UT's new staff that he had changed his mind and would sign with Alabama. Jones was able to bring him back in the fold, and North surely helped with that.

Dooley said after national signing day 2012 that the Vols needed to recruit better in North Carolina. And Jones knows all too well that the state will be key to his rebuilding efforts.

"It's one of our top priorities," Jones said. "North Carolina, with the proximity and the great high school coaching, that has to be a great area for us.

"We treat that as a home base. You look at all the great teams in the past at Tennessee. We've always traditionally been able to get great players from the state of North Carolina."

Jones has strong ties in Ohio from his days as Cincinnati's head coach. Surprisingly, he also has strong ties to Tennessee. Tight ends coach Mark Elder recruited the state of Tennessee, and specifically Memphis, for the Bearcats.

"He'll be key," Jones said of Elder. "He's a tireless and relentless worker. He loves recruiting. He's great at building relationships. He's real. He's genuine. He works hard and I think he's a great evaluator."

When interviewing prospects from Memphis last spring, they brought up Cincinnati and Elder more than any coach on Tennessee's former staff. Elder's current relationships will likely help him have success in Memphis, an area where Tennessee has traditionally struggled, no matter the head coach.

"There's a ton of talent rolling through Memphis," Elder said. "You look at the numbers -- it has a number of guys that have gone on and been successful here and at other schools in the SEC."

Elder won't be alone in securing the state. Jones said he'll assign seven coaches to different areas of the Volunteer State.

Tennessee was once thought of as low on talent compared to the states that house its SEC brethren. With population growth across the state, however, that's not the full story anymore.

"Very significant," Elder said of recruiting in-state. "There's a lot of good football players in this state that can help us win championships here. We need to keep those kids here in Tennessee, particularly in Memphis."

Geography and competition will challenge Jones' staff, though. Vanderbilt is an up-and-coming program, and Memphis is a region targeted by several nearby schools, including Ole Miss, which had an incredible 2013 recruiting class.

But Jones said playing in the Liberty Bowl after the 2011 season -- in addition to his staff's Memphis connections -- has helped turn heads in the region.

With Tennessee's 2013 class complete, Elder is looking forward to cashing in on those Memphis links in future classes.

"It's hard to do the speed-dating, which was what we were doing a lot this past year with 2013," he said. "Having a relationship with a kid for two-plus years certainly makes it easier to land a kid."

There's that "relationship" word again.