Saban blueprint works

If you use the NFL Draft as a measuring stick, Tennessee's football program hasn't been this shy of talent in 48 years.

The Vols had just two players picked in the just-completed 2011 NFL Draft, with neither going in Round 1. That's the worst Tennessee has fared in the pro football selection process since 1963, when no Vols were taken.

Only five times in the past 47 years did the Big Orange produce two draft picks - 1965 (Steve DeLong, White Canale), 1976 (Ron McCartney, Tommy West), 1980 (Roland James, Craig Puki), 1989 (Keith DeLong, Jeff Francis) and 1993 (Todd Kelly, Dave Thomas). Only one time in the past 47 years did Tennessee produce fewer draft picks than this year. That was 2009, when Robert Ayers was the Vols' lone draftee.

Even in those lean drafts of '65, '76, '80, '89, '93 and '09, however, a Tennessee player was taken in Round 1 or 2 each time. This year's draft saw the first Vol last until Round 4, when tight end Luke Stocker was taken by Tampa Bay with the 104th overall pick. Wideout Denarius Moore was taken by Oakland a round later with the 148th overall pick. And that was that.

Still, there is reason for Tennessee fans to be optimistic: The Alabama football team Nick Saban inherited in 2007 went 7-6 and had zero players selected in the 2008 NFL Draft. By Year 4, however, his rebuilt Tide had four players taken in THE FIRST ROUND of the 2011 draft - defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (No. 3 overall), wide receiver Julio Jones (No. 6), tackle James Carpenter (No. 25) and tailback Mark Ingram (No. 28). By the way, the last guy in that group won a Heisman Trophy.

Going from zero draftees to four first-round picks in one recruiting cycle underscores how much shrewd talent evaluation, a strong sales pitch and quality player development can do for a program. Being a Saban disciple, Tennessee's Derek Dooley knows the blueprint. He'll need to adhere to it in the years ahead because the Vol program he inherited 16 months ago was in even worse shape than the Tide program Saban inherited in 2007.

Whereas Alabama's talent bottomed out in 2007, then rose in meteoric fashion under Saban, Tennessee's talent level has been down for a while. The Vols had just one player picked in the 2009 draft, six in 2010 and two in 2011. That's nine players in the past three years. By comparison, Tennessee had TEN players chosen in the 2002 draft alone.

Obviously, NFL draftees aren't the only indicator of a program's success. Still, it is a fairly reliable indicator of a program's talent level in the ultra-competitive SEC, as Bama's dramatic rise in victories and draft picks under Saban the past four years clearly suggests.

There also is a visible correlation between Tennessee's on-field success and its NFL draft production during the 16 years since the draft was reduced to seven rounds. Here's a recap of those 16 years, with first-round picks in parenthesis:

1993: Tennessee went 10-2, had five players taken in '04 draft (1)

1994: Tennessee went 8-4, had nine players taken in '05 draft (1)

1995: Tennessee went 11-1, had eight players taken in '06 draft (0)

1996: Tennessee went 10-2, had three players taken in '07 draft (0)

1997: Tennessee went 11-2, had seven players taken in '98 draft (3)

1998: Tennessee went 13-0, had six players taken in '99 draft (1)

1999: Tennessee went 9-3, had nine players taken in 2000 draft (2)

2000: Tennessee went 8-4, had five players taken in '01 draft (0)

2001: Tennessee went 11-2, had 10 players taken in '02 draft (3)

2002: Tennessee went 8-5, had eight players taken in '03 draft (0)

2003: Tennessee went 10-3, had four players taken in '04 draft (0)

2004: Tennessee went 10-3, had three players taken in '05 draft (0)

2005: Tennessee went 5-6, had four players taken in '06 draft (1)

2006: Tennessee went 9-4, had six players taken in '07 draft (2)

2007: Tennessee went 10-4, had three players taken in '08 draft (1)

2008: Tennessee went 5-7, had one player taken in '09 draft (1)

2009: Tennessee went 7-6, had six players taken in '10 draft (2)

2010: Tennessee went 6-7, had two players taken in '11 draft (0)

Clearly, three years stick out as anomalies - 1994, 1996 and 2002.

The '94 Vols went just 8-4 but had nine players drafted. This was the year that first-team senior quarterback Jerry Colquitt was injured on the seventh play of the opener. After a 1-3 start, Tennessee turned to a freshman QB named Peyton Manning who guided a 7-1 finish.

The '96 Vols went 10-2 but had just three players drafted. That's because the 1996 Vols were a junior-driven team. Three of those juniors would be first-round NFL Draft picks a year later.

The 2002 Vols went just 8-5 but had eight players drafted. As in '94, the '02 team was hampered by health issues involving the No. 1 quarterback. Casey Clausen suffered severely bruised ribs in Game 5 against Arkansas, causing the Vols to limp home 4-4 following a 4-1 start.

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