KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee is trying to recapture its status as the state's dominant football program by relying on players who grew up near Vanderbilt's campus.
The Volunteers (5-6, 2-5 SEC) have five part-time or full-time starters who went to high school within about an hour's drive of Vanderbilt Stadium, a figure that increases to six if you add freshman kicker Aaron Medley. That group includes two of the Southeastern Conference's most promising freshmen in defensive end Derek Barnett and running back Jalen Hurd.
All of the Nashville-area Volunteers with at least six starts are freshmen or sophomores who signed with Tennessee after coach Butch Jones' arrival, though sophomore linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin of Clarksville verbally committed when Derek Dooley was still running the program. They're returning home Saturday and attempting to snap Vanderbilt's two-game winning streak in this series.
"You look at the mid-state in general, it's one of the rising population bases in the country," Jones said. "There are great high school coaches throughout the entire state of Tennessee. There are great football players. We want players that understand what it means to represent the University of Tennessee, the magnitude, the relevance."
For comparison's sake, Vanderbilt's only two starters from the middle Tennessee area are senior center Joe Townsend and junior defensive tackle Caleb Azubike.
Tennessee's prevalence of Nashville-area underclassmen in prominent roles underscores the emphasis Jones places on this increasingly fertile recruiting territory.
"At one point it was a nice area to go in and get one or two players out of, but all of a sudden, it's really been a battleground that's important particularly for Tennessee and Vanderbilt to have a firm control over," said Barton Simmons, the Nashville-based national director of scouting for 247Sports. "I think the talent level right now in middle Tennessee is unprecedented relative to its history."
Tennessee, which opens the 2015 season against UAB at Nashville's LP Field, put a billboard up in Nashville last month that had a picture of the Vols' Nashville-area freshmen with the statement "The Mid-State Stars: Giving Their All For Tennessee."
That group includes Barnett, who is tied for sixth nationally with 18 ½ tackles for loss. It also features Hurd, who has rushed for 756 yards. Freshman receiver Josh Malone has started six games. Offensive guard Jashon Robertson has started all season long.
"A lot of the (Nashville-area) guys who are here now, I grew up with them, I'd seen them play, I went and hung out with them on weekends and stuff like that," Hurd said. "We had a great bond and relationship coming up here."
Now the Vols have more of a Nashville flavor than Vanderbilt (3-8, 0-7). Tennessee currently has five 2015 verbal commitments from the middle Tennessee area, whereas Vanderbilt has only three. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is in his first year on the job after replacing James Franklin, who aggressively recruited Nashville-area players during his three-year tenure before leaving for Penn State.
"Coach Franklin really made a point to do that, and did a great job," said Philip Shadowens, the coach at Blackman High School in Murfreesboro. "He got a lot of players from the Tennessee area. Kind of in some sense, he was doing a better job probably than Tennessee was. Then coach Jones has done so much better since he got there. And I think coach Mason's staff has very little connection to Tennessee, has not looked to recruit this area as hard as the previous staff.
"There might be a time it will, but I think right off the bat, it wasn't a focal point for their staff to recruit this area."
Mason said he is pursuing local prospects while also looking nationally.
"It's always important to recruit your backyard," Mason said. "That's always first and foremost. We aren't going to sacrifice our backyard for going national. We just have a national brand. Our brand is national so that's what we recruit, but we've done a good job of looking at guys that fit who we are."
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.