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July 22, 2013

New SEC coaches join intense fray

MORE: Auburn camp recruiting notebook

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
You ain't seen nothin' yet.

It is hard to say it better than Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and for first-time SEC head coaches Bret Bielema, Butch Jones, Gus Malzahn and Mark Stoops, moving up in conference has come with plenty of changes.

Each has had success at previous coaching stops, winning or sharing in a conference title last football season, but all four acknowledged at the conference media days in Hoover, Ala., that hearing what the SEC is about and being a part of it has been very different.

Jones, who takes over at Tennessee, has won or shared four conference titles the last six years between Central Michigan and Cincinnati, including the last two with the Bearcats. He said the intensity at this level is like nothing else.

"The best analogy I can give you is every day in the SEC is like fourth-and-1 for the national championship," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's practice, recruiting, game time, which I'll experience soon, the competitive structure of this football conference, the difference between winning and losing is very slim."

Jones is experiencing the most recruiting success of the four.

The Vols have the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country with 11 four-star commitments in a 23-member class. The class is headlined by a trio of 6.0 Rivals.com-ranked players in running back Jalen Hurd of Hendersonville (Tenn.) Beech, linebacker Dillon Bates of Ponte Vedra (Fla.) High, and defensive back Todd Kelly of Knoxville (Tenn.) Webb School.

Just behind Tennessee in the recruiting rankings is Kentucky, where Stoops is the new head coach.

The talk of the recruiting industry was when the Wildcats pushed to the top spot in the nation, and equally as surprising is that the program has sustained its success. The Wildcats hold the No. 4 spot at the time of this report.

Stoops has never been a head coach before, but like the other fresh faces at the media day podium, he enters the SEC fresh off a share of his own conference title as defensive coordinator at Florida State in 2012.

He said the strong close to the class of 2013 has aided with the fast start for the class of 2014.

"Well, yeah, we all get caught in the momentum," Stoops said. "I feel very good, and I like the momentum we have in recruiting right now. We plan to continue that. I'm sure coaches, and I know we are at Kentucky, when you bring these players in on campus, they know what they have. They know what we did last year."

Last year, the program finished winless in the conference and lost to Western Kentucky. Stoops said that keeping everyone pointed forward -- especially when dealing with prospects -- is the way to right the ship.

"They just have to believe in where you're going and where the future's going of your program, what you're doing," he said. "You know, I just try to be very honest with those recruits and tell them where we're at and where we plan to go."

Perhaps the most successful coach who made a move was Bielema, who takes over at Arkansas. He led Wisconsin to the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance each of the last three seasons.

Even with that success -- and the competitive nature of recruiting against the likes of Michigan and Ohio State -- Bielema said the boost in recruiting to this conference was incredible.

"If you're talking odysseys in recruiting, the national exposure you have in recruiting. We got a quarterback out of Egg Harbor, New Jersey, that we tried to recruit at (Wisconsin). He reached out to us once I switched because he wanted to play in the SEC. I said, 'Well, I've got a heck of an opportunity for you,'" Bielema recalled.

"He switched, de-committed from another school, became a part of what we did. That was all because of the SEC on our shirt."

Arkansas has seen a recent run of success in recruiting. The program has landed five commitments in the last seven days to move to No. 37 in the team rankings.

Like all coaches, Bielema is not allowed to comment on recruits in the current class, but he has made it clear that recruiting locally will be important.

"When I began to put together my plan as I took the Arkansas job, talked about recruiting, the No. 1 priority is always going to be the state of Arkansas," he said. "Then I began to look at where can we go and recruit and have success."

With commitments from two of the top three players within the state -- defensive tackle Bijhon Jackson of El Dorado (Ark.) High and running back Juan Day of North Little Rock (Ark.) High -- and being a serious contender to land Springdale (Ark.) Har-Ber defensive tackle Josh Frazier, there is measurable success already.

Bielema said he would also focus on Florida -- where Arkansas historically has not recruited strongly -- as well as Texas and Louisiana.

Auburn's Malzahn is the only coach of the quartet with experience in the conference. As the offensive coordinator and wide receiver coach at Arkansas in 2006, he was named the Rivals.com coordinator of the year. He was the Auburn offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2009 through 2011.

Like the other three men, he won a conference title last season while serving as the head coach at Arkansas State

While he has not been the face of the program before, he knew that assembling an SEC-caliber staff was key to sustaining success.

It was a point of emphasis in his address to the media.

"(I am) very proud of our staff." he said. "I feel we have one of the top staffs in college football -- all men of character, great examples for our players. That's the No. 1 thing for me. All very good coaches.

"On most college staffs, you have good coaches, good recruiters. I can honestly say we got nine guys who can flat-out coach. That will be very good for us in the future."

Upon taking the job at Auburn, Malzahn turned over the entire staff, firing many longtime assistants and successful recruiters.

His hires of Melvin Smith, J.B. Grimes, Dameyune Craig, Tim Horton and Rhett Lashlee -- among the nine additions -- have continued to bring in players to the program.

Auburn has the No.22 class in the country with just 12 commitments.

Malzahn acknowledged the reputations of many of his assistants, but to industry insiders, the most important hire may have been Craig.

"When I first got the job, like I said earlier, I felt it was important that we got former Auburn players who have been successful as a player, who understood what Auburn was about, had that special passion about it," Malzahn said. "Of course, (Craig is) known as a great recruiter, which he is. But he is a big-time football coach. I believe he was the quarterbacks coach the last two years, had first-round draft picks."

With fewer than six weeks until football season kicks off and just over seven months until National Signing Day, the lessons will only be hammered home for the new coaches.

Stoops said this year may come with growing pains and that he will need to continue to emphasize recruiting if he wants to build Kentucky into a legitimate program within the SEC East.

"We need to upgrade our talent and continue to work extremely hard in recruiting to be competitive in this league," he said. "In our side of the division, certainly you have to look at Florida and South Carolina, expect them to be very good. Shoot, we're just worried about ourselves, to be honest with you. We have so much work to do. All the teams in this league are good. We all know that. We talk about that. Top to bottom, there's no break."

Jones agreed with Stoops and said only time will tell how successful he is, even as he knows it will come with a challenge.

"We always talk about it in terms of inches making the champion," Jones said. "You're looking for those inches. Everyone is looking for that competitive edge. Everyone is making commitments to their football program.

"That's what makes this the best football conference in America."



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