UT Faces Stiff Recruiting Challenge

It doesn't take a recruiting analyst to recognize UT's chances of landing a premier football prospect would be greatly enhanced if Southern Cal would simply run out of scholarships.

The Trojans four-year ride atop national polls has taken the program to rarified air in recruiting wars and few 17 year olds have any recollection of the long drought that preceded the rebirth under former failed NFL head coach Pete Carroll.

Last year the Vols lost home state prospect and the nation's No. 1 receiver Patrick Turner to USC. This season the toll is growing exponentially with every UT loss and USC win. The Trojans are the team to beat for both LeSean McCoy and Stefon Johnson who are rated the nation's No. 2 and No. 3 running back prospects respectively.

Tennessee is still in position to have a solid recruiting campaign, but the chances of landing prospects that can immediately impact the depth charts on offense next fall are rapidly dissipating.

The Trojans already enjoy a huge intrinsic advantage recruiting a state rich in gridiron stars, but now their lure is pulling in prospects throughout the South and along eastern seaboard. In the process, they are proving the importance of putting together several stellar campaigns when it comes to successful recruiting. Miami did the same thing during its early 80s transition from commuter college to gridiron giant.

While Tennessee has more tradition than Miami and more consistent success the last 20 years than USC, the Vols weren't able to follow up on their 1998 national championship with another title run. In fact, since UT finished 13-0 in ‘98 and captured the first BCS title, it has only finished in the top 10 twice — No. 9 in 1999 and No. 4 in 2001.

Moreover, before three seasons — 1999, 2002 and 2005 — the Vols were picked to finish in the top five in preseason national polls. Their collective record to this point in those seasons is an unimpressive 21-12 which is hardly top 25 worthy much less top five.

Those prior failures to live up to expectations made this season even more significant, as rival recruiters were armed and ready to tell prospects they would never compete for a national championship at Tennessee, regardless of how many high school all-Americans the Vols signed.

That point was enforced by the fact UT had just secured what was rated the nation's No. 1 recruiting class in February of 2005. In fairness, Tennessee redshirted most of its prized freshman class, but perception is what it is. According to rival recruiters, the combination of top ten recruiting classes and a lack of top ten finishes exposes Tennessee as a program that fails to develop talent. This contention was further underscored by the lack of first round choices from UT in recent NFL Drafts.

In fact, the Tennessee teams in the five-year period between 1997 and 2002 produced nine first-round picks, seven second-round picks and seven third-round choices. By comparison, the teams of 2002, 2003 and 2004 produced no first-round picks, one second-round pick and three third round choices. That's 23 players drafted in the first three rounds of League Draft over five years compared to four players chosen in the first three rounds the last three years.

In terms of first and second-round choices the difference is an alarming 16 to 1. Seven of those 16 players taken in the first two rounds were from UT's offense, including one quarterback, four wide receivers and three running backs. The single second-round pick was linebacker Eddie Moore.Tennessee hasn't had a single offensive player taken in the first two rounds the last three years. And there isn't likely to be any offensive player taken from Tennessee in the first two rounds next spring either. How much of a difference could a couple of impact players have made to this year's Tennessee offense?

Signing a top five prospect doesn't mean you're assured of getting an impact player, but it helps. Besides, if you're not developing top five prospects, how effective can you be developing top 30, 40 or 50 prospects?

That's what recruits are being asked and that's a point Tennessee's coaching staff will have to counter to put together a highly regarded class. They are hindered in this endeavor by the disappointing season, uncertainty currently surrounding the program and the lack of an offensive coordinator.

Phillip Fulmer's rep as an ace recruiter will be sorely tested in 2006.

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