Recruiting Coordinator Zach Azzanni: We Always Want More
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a series of discussions with Tennessee athletic coaches.
Recruiting coordinator is a strange term in modern-day college football. With the growth of recruiting offices, the term ‘coordinator’ carries different meanings at different schools.
For instance, Zach Azzanni‘s time is better spent recruiting his areas – East Tennessee, South Florida, St. Louis, Mo., part of Atlanta, Ga., and focusing on helping Tennessee secure elite receivers, which is the position he coaches. Someone else can compile call lists and highlight video.
So Azzanni isn’t going to take credit for the Vols having one of the most impressive classes in the nation, especially considering they are being coached by a first-year staff in Knoxville. Still, Azzanni deserves some kudos even if he’s not surprised by the early success.
“No I’m not surprised and one of the reasons I’m not surprised is we’re never satisfied,” said Azzanni, who came to Tennessee from Wisconsin after head coach Butch Jones was hired. “We have a demanding head coach. Whatever we are in the rankings and whatever player we get, we always want more.
“We want better and we’re always trying to improve so I’m not surprised…We’re going to compete with the best every year, no matter if it’s our first year or tenth year. We’re going to compete with the best in country.”
Rivals ranks Tennessee’s 2014 class as No. 1 in the country. Scout has the Vols at No. 4. 247 has the Vols at No. 5. Perhaps Azzanni and his fellow coaches aren’t surprise, but most fans and recruiting analysts are a bit more taken aback.
The lingering question is just how good can it get? Moreover, can it be maintained, especially if the Vols struggle this fall as many believe will be the case? Azzanni is hoping to build a more complete case to come to Knoxville than just the 2013 season.
“Every kid has a different reason why he wants to attend a specific school,” said Azzanni, who is a Michigan native and an alum of Central Michigan. “Hopefully the kids we’re recruiting right now want to come to Tennessee for a lot of other reasons than just this particular fall…Hopefully we’re recruiting the right kind of kids that believe in the same vision we have for Tennessee football.
“What we’re selling is that what happens this fall is no result of you. What happens after this fall is because of you. We’re selling that to them because that’s the truth.”
Jones has an advantage that most former Tennessee coaches didn’t have. Gen. Robert Neyland, Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer long extolled the virtues of recruiting nationally. That will still be the case but much more can be accomplished within Tennessee’s borders.
The Volunteers have three in-state commitments. Two are some of the Vols’ highest-rated among its 19 commitments: tailback Jalen Hurd from Beech (Tenn.) Hendersonville and safety Todd Kelly Jr. from Knoxville (Tenn.) Webb.
“I think it’s definitely improved,” Azzanni said of the in-state talent. “Certainly we don’t have the volume that Florida, Ohio, California or Texas may have but we certainly have some top-notch players. That’s been proven, especially lately.”
Azzanni handles much of East Tennessee. Tight ends coach Mark Elder handles other areas of the state, especially Memphis. Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen also specializes in Tennessee.
“They’ve done a great job of, cultivating those relationships and, quite frankly, getting some back,” Azzanni said without throwing a well-deserved jab at former head coach Derek Dooley.
South Florida is a key area for the Vols. Azzanni is in charge of that and figures to do well, especially with Miami struggling. Securing linebacker Dillon Bates from Ponte Vedra (Fla.) High should only help. Even though his school is near Jacksonville, grabbing such a talented prospect will help the Vols’ recruiting in Florida.
“The volume of players in South Florida is what’s remarkable,” Azzanni said. “South Florida is a different kind of area. I always tease young coaches, ‘Don’t say you’re a recruiter until you’ve recruited South Florida.’
“It’s just a different animal. I don’t think the average fan realizes what it’s like to go down South Florida and recruit.”
Azzanni has seven coaches on Tennessee’s staff that have recruited the Sunshine State. The Vols know the area well. They also know that prospects can easily be overlooked. Azzanni said prospects from the area tend to be better prepared for college football because they can play spring football unlike high schools in the north.
Ask Azzanni what he’s most excited about seeing in preseason practice this fall and he’ll quickly answer freshmen. That’s not a critique of his current crop. However, Marquez North, Jonathan Johnson, Josh Smith, Ryan Jenkins and Paul Harris will have their chances.
“We’re not as talented yet [with veterans],” Azzanni said. “We’re very young. We’re very inexperienced. We’re going to have some growing pains. People need to be aware of that. I don’t think people really care. They just want us to go out and win but that’s the reality.”
Admittedly, Azzanni isn’t sure what he has in his returning players. Losing receivers Cordarelle Patterson, Justin Hunter, Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera will have that effect. Then Azzanni was faced with multiple injuries as he tried to learn about his players during spring practice.
“I don’t really have a feel for it right now,” Azzanni said of the current roster. “The reason I don’t have a feel is I want to see these freshmen…All indications are they have been working their tail off. But to see how far, knowing my expectations and my drills, to see which guys have really been putting in the work. Which guys really put in the work?”
Of course Cody Blanc, Jason Croom and Alton Howard have the inside track since they’ve been around the program. Azzanni specifically said he’d like to see Howard be more specific and show some maturity.
If the veterans can’t step up, look for the freshmen to get an early look. That, however, will be a challenge in Jones’ up-tempo offense.”
“The complication in our offense doesn’t come from the X’s and O’s,” Azzanni said. “We’re actually very simple. The complication from our offense comes from the speed and the different tempo changes. That’s why young players struggles. That’s where all our players struggled this spring because it was new to them.”
Recruiting and getting his receivers ready for a new offense, Azzanni has plenty of challenges. He’s not shying away from them. Prospects seem to notice.
Listen to my entire interview with recruiting coordinator Zach Azzanni by clicking HERE.