Ranking the recruiters: Tommy Thigpen has been consistently near the top

Tommy Thigpen coaches Malik Foreman in practice last August (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, who was named Rivals.com recruiter of the year earlier this month, is one of several assistants who scored well in 247Sports’ recruiter rankings.

247Sports added the new ranking to its arsenal about a year ago, and has since used its database to rank assistant coaches from past years as well. (The numbers are not as complete as 2014, but are still useful to review).

The rankings show that Thigpen’s prowess as a recruiter is nothing new.

The change in coaching staffs at Tennessee makes it difficult to get an exact picture in 2013.

But in 2011 and 2012, Thigpen was No. 5 and No. 18 nationally, respectively, credited with signing a dozen recruits who helped build Auburn’s SEC championship team in 2013.

If recruiting rankings were once controversial, 247Sports opened up a whole new realm by ranking the recruiters. Initially, I thought coaches would freak out. Coaches are already a competitive breed, and I thought we’d see internal fights about who gets credit for signing each recruit. Maybe that stuff occurs behind the scenes, but I think most coaching staffs have long since made their peace with the recruiting industry. And 247Sports (full disclaimer: the company is a News Sentinel partner with GoVols247) has done a nice job pushing the franchise into new territory.

So let’s take a look at the 2014 rankings. Thigpen, No. 10 overall, was listed as the primary or secondary recruiter on an incredible 17 prospects in this cycle. (Second place was Cincinnati’s Robert Prunty with 14).

Other Vols assistants ranked this year:

Despite a midseason knee injury, running backs coach Robert Gillespie was a prolific recruiter. (photo by Evan Woodbery)

No. 28: Running backs coach Robert Gillespie

No. 38: Tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Mark Elder

No. 60: Defensive line coach and assistant head coach Steve Stripling

No. 107: Defensive backs coach Willie Martinez

No. 150: Receivers coach Zach Azzanni

Nationally, 247Sports said the top recruiter was Georgia’s Bryan McClendon. Former Vol quarterback and current USC assistant Tee Martin was No. 2.

But small sample sizes or a singe elite player can skew the one-year rankings. In 2013, there was a largely new crop of names in the top 10. (McClendon was No. 122; Martin was No. 92). Florida State’s Jeremy Pruitt, now defensive coordinator at Georgia, was No. 1.

The fluctuation shows that plenty of factors lead to a good recruiting ranking. It could depend on the number of players a team plans to sign at a certain position or whether it was a particularly strong year for a certain geographical area.

But Thigpen’s strength seems to transcend those fluctuations. And it’s worth noting that he was a closer of sorts for the Vols’ staff. Butch Jones put him on recruits that weren’t necessarily at his position or his geographic area.

Thigpen came to Tennessee after Auburn dismissed its staff in the wake of a dismal 2012 season. His link to Butch Jones’ Midwestern crew was Martinez, who was also on that Auburn staff in 2012.

Auburn’s coaching staff was stocked with top recruiters — including Trooper Taylor, running backs coach Curtis Luper, offensive line coach Jeff Grimes and others. Coaches always pretend not to care about recruiting rankings, but it was either Taylor or Luper who once said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “If they’re keeping score, I want to win.”

That was refreshing honesty. And there’s no doubt that Thigpen has won a lot.