Vols Burned by 1999 Back Draft

If you connect the dots from this year's disappointing NFL Draft to Tennessee's Class of 2000 you'll find it's still inconclusive, and you'll discover the real culprit may have been the Class of 1999 which came a mere month after the Vols won their first national championship in 47 years.

The Class of 2000 was a dandy on paper, featuring the nation's No. 1 safety, three of the top ten offensive linemen, a top five quarterback, a big-play scatback, a couple of quality prep school products and an assortment of misfires. You'll find nine left early, including Jason Witten for last year's NFL Draft, and defensive tackle Lynn McGruder for the dreaded violation of team rules. You'll find one, Shyrone Carey, that never enrolled because of academic shortcomings, who ended up playing for LSU's 2003 national championship team.

You'll also discovered that eight members of that class are still at Tennessee and a couple of those. Michael Munoz and Kevin Burnett, have a chance to go in the first two rounds of the 2005 NFL Draft. Karlton Neal, Tony Brown, Jason Respert and Victor McClure are all returning starters and good candidates to be drafted. Corey Larkins has been a contributor on offense, defense and special teams the last three seasons. Dustin Colquitt came to UT with the Class of 2000 and went on scholarship the next season. He has a chance to become a consensus All-American in 2004 as well as a draft choice in 2005.

Two members (Rashad Baker and Casey Clausen) of the Class of 2000 signees were four-year starters for the Vols, but weren't taken in the draft. Chavis Smith started for the better part of three seasons and wasn't drafted, while Jabari Greer started three-plus seasons and suffered the same fate.

In fact, the only UT player taken from the Class of 2000 in the 2004 NFL Draft was Mark Jones. Witten was taken in the 2003 Draft but not until the third round by Dallas. Troy Fleming and Scott Wells came arrived at UT in the Class of 1999 while Gibril Wilson was signed in the Class of 2002.

The biggest miss from the Class of 2000 was O.J. Owens who was rated the nation's best safety by virtually ever recruiting service in the country. The list of schools that vied for Owens can't be overstated and most believed he would be a college standout. Of course, Owens never lived up to that promise and transferred to Western Carolina to finish out his career.

Other misses were more marginal in nature since they weren't as highly rated and all left UT early. They include: Trey Jerrigan, Brad Hilsher, Hayden Moore, Lee Wheeler and Andre Taylor. Guillane Dumont, an offensive lineman from Montreal, Canada, is allegedly still in school although he hasn't shown up in games.

Both Tony Campbell and Mondre Dickerson played and started games at UT before dismissals from the squad. That means 16 members of Tennessee's Class of 2000 became starters for the Vols which isn't a bad return at all. The starters include: Robert Peace, Clausen, Witten, Munoz, Young, Respert, Brown, McClure, Smith, Jones, Burnett, Greer, Baker, Campbell, Dickerson and Colquitt.

However the Class of 1999 was much more problematical. Of the 17 prospects signed that year only four went on to start two seasons at Tennessee. Those prospects are Troy Fleming, Anthony Herrera, Eddie Moore and Scott Wells. UT also signed four prospects from Texas in 1999 that all left school early and never nailed down a starting job — Greg Barnum, Devon Davis, Sterling Kazee and Kevin Young. Kazee was kicked off the squad while the other three left of their own accord. Only Barnum ever approached a starting role for the Vols.

Most of the nine remaining players left school within two years of arriving. The most notable of these was Onterrio Smith who was dismissed before his sophomore season and went on to have great success at Oregon. Linebacker Anthony Sessions was a solid contributor and a one-year starter. Quarterback A.J. Suggs transferred to Georgia Tech after starting four games and losing the job to Clausen his freshman season. The failure to land Chris Simms in 19909 created a void at that vital position for Tennessee which was forced to use two freshmen without playing experience.

Defensive tackle Terriea Smalls stayed at UT five years but never started a single game. Defensive end Charles Roberson never enrolled because of academic issues and injuries eventually cut his career short. Constantin Ritzmann lettered four seasons at Tennessee but only started his senior campaign. Place kicker Steven Lee transferred to Jacksonville State where he was beaten out for starting duties by a female.

Albert Haynesworth didn't earn a full time starting job at UT until his junior season and he entered the NFL Draft in 2002 and was taken in the first round by the Tennessee Titans. Chavis Smith was signed in 1999 but had to go to prep school and was re-signed in 2000.

Only six players signed from the Class of 1999 ever became starters at Tennessee and half the class left early. The lack of productivity and stability by the Class of 1999 forced the Vols to rush some of the true freshmen from 2000 into action before they were ready. Some of the Vols who weren't drafted from the 2000 class may have benefited from an extra season.

There arises the paradox coaches face in this modern era. Clearly players who are able to redshirt and gain the extra year of experience fare better in the Draft but many arrive with the idea of leaving early if the opportunity arises. Jason Witten likely left a lot of money on the table by leaving early. Gerald Riggs Jr. could have used a redshirt year just to acclimate himself to the academic demands of college life. The same is true of Cedric Houston and Jabari Davis but when the Vols lost Onterrio Smith and Shyrone Carey they were forced into backup roles behind Travis Stephens, although clearly neither was ready to play as true freshmen and made only nominal contributions. Just like the loss of McGruder rushed Greg Jones' timetable at defensive tackle.

It's apparent Coach Phillip Fulmer's appraisal of this year's NFL Draft as an aberration has merit. Additionally, it's easy to see how one bad recruiting class can create ripples for half a decade. It's also ironic that perhaps the worst recruiting class in Fulmer's era was signed just a month after the Vols greatest triumph in half a century.


Inside Tennessee Top Stories