All five players came to The Hill from junior college in the past two years. All five are starting and contributing significantly for the Vols. Simply put, their value to the program is almost inestimable.
"Without a doubt," receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Darin Hinshaw said recently. "Everybody's important but it's always good to hit the junior colleges — as we do every year — and find the best players in the country."
McCullers, Sentimore and Couch comprise Tennessee's entire first-team defensive front. Patterson adds sizzle to the receiving corps and the return game. Moore is a ball-hawking safety who ranks among the national leaders in interceptions.
Where Tennessee would be without these five players is almost scary when one considers how much they have contributed this fall:
McCullers, a 6-foot-6, 362-pound behemoth, anchors the defensive line at nose tackle. "The Green Mile" held his coming-out party with 8 stops, a tackle for loss and a blocked PAT in Saturday's game at No. 5 Georgia. His season stats show 12 stops, 2 tackles for loss, a hurry and a pass deflection.
Sentimore, a 6-foot-2, 288-pounder, has started all five games at end. He has made his plays count, numbering 3 tackles for loss and 2 sacks among his 9 stops. He also has 2 hurries and a fumble recovery to his credit.
Couch, a 6-foot-2, 295-pounder, has started every game at end but also has seen extensive action at nose tackle. He leads all Vol linemen with 19 stops, including 2 tackles for loss. He boasts a hurry and a fumble forced, as well.
Tennessee's first-year defensive line coach is generally pleased with his juco brigade.
"At times we've gotten a lot out of 'em," John Palermo said. "At other times we haven't gotten what we needed. Mo Couch by far has been the most consistent. Dan McCullers has done what we've asked him to do when we're playing against a two-back team or three-back team or two-tight end team. Sentimore has been inconsistent at times. He's done some very good things and at other times he's been inconsistent."
Moore gives the Vols four junior-college grads among the 11 first-team defenders. He returned a first-quarter interception 35 yards for a touchdown Saturday at Georgia and has 88 return yards for the year. His four picks this fall rank him second nationally. He ranks second among Tennessee players in tackles (36) and leads in passes defended (5).
|Having former Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College standout Cordarrelle Patterson on the outside has been quite valuable for the Volunteers.|
If you go back one more year and include 2010 tight end signee Mychal Rivera, Tennessee has six jucos in the starting lineup. There would be seven except that Izauea Lanier, a 2011 signee who started nine games at cornerback last fall, was declared academically ineligible last summer.
Counting Lanier, head coach Derek Dooley is 6-for-6 on juco signees the past two years. All three 2012 signees (McCullers, Sentimore, Patterson) are starting and all three 2011 signees (Couch, Moore, Lanier) would be if Lanier hadn't faltered in the classroom.
Clearly, Tennessee's rebuilding effort is a lot further along with the six junior-college signees than it would be without them.
"A lot of times in junior college you get a guy who is older and sometimes a little bit hungrier because their time is short," Hinshaw said. "In that situation those are guys we can plug in and get to play right away. The older guys have played more ball, and that helps us. That's the kind of guy we're looking for."
Naturally, Dooley prefers signing high school prospects who have four years of eligibility, rather than juco prospects who have only two. He has struck a great compromise, however, by locating junior college players who sat out one year and bring three years of eligibility. Rivera and all three 2011 signees — Moore, Lanier and Couch — fit this category.
"We look at guys that redshirted their first year in junior college and play one year, then you get 'em three (years of eligibility) for three (years on campus)," Hinshaw said. "That's a great deal. We got quite a few guys that way. We look at that and we look at talent that can come in and help us right away."
Another major consideration in signing junior-college talent is whether or not a player can enroll at mid-term and compete in spring practice. Sentimore greatly benefited from this opportunity last March.
"Getting high school and junior college guys who can come in for spring is huge because we get 'em for seven months before the first game, instead of two months," Hinshaw said. "They get to get in a flow. They understand the offense, the defense and special teams — our commitment level to all of those things. We get to coach them in the spring, whereas in the summer we don't get that opportunity."
Because many junior-college players have academic or personal issues, some schools are reluctant to recruit the juco ranks. Tennessee is not, mostly because Vol staffers target players with specific attributes.
"They've got to be talented, they've got to be special and they've got to have a maturity level and those things," Hinshaw said.
Most of all, they've got to be academically motivated.
"The NCAA is cranking it up for junior college players now; their GPA has to be a 2.5," Hinshaw noted. "That's a higher standard than it is in high school. They've got to do college-level courses and have a 2.5 GPA before they leave.
"The NCAA's cracking down on that, and those guys are having to do better in their school work. We're looking at a lot of different factors as we look for junior-college players."