Sorting Out Star Wars

If you're reading this while out on a high window ledge or some towering cliff, it's safe to assume you're using a laptop, and that you're not happy about Tennessee's Class of 2006.

Slowly move away from the edge and read further.

Things aren't as bad as they might seem. Tennessee has gone through its darkest hour and is moving toward the light. Spring's renewal is just around the corner and the fall harvest a mere eight months away.

Sure the lowest ranked recruiting class in the Phillip Fulmer Era at Tennessee coming on the heels of his first losing season is disconcerting, but it hardly qualifies as a trend.

Given the circumstances, Tennessee's recruiting efforts were much better than anyone had a right to expect. Making major staff changes at the end of the season and in the middle of the recruiting campaign put the Vols at a major disadvantage, as did a shortage of in-state senior talent. There weren't any five-star prospects in the state this year and the losing season scared off mega stars from beyond Tennessee's borders.

The Vols made a nice recovery in coming up with a top 25 class. Most importantly they managed to address their most pressing needs, and actually added more players that will make a difference in their first year than the celebrated No. 1 Class of 2005 made last fall. That's because UT was able to redshirt most of that class. Now they'll get major contributions from both classes, which means a significant infusion of young talent with high energy and a clean psychological slate.

While the Vols didn't get the star-studded classes UT faithful have grown accustomed to, it's a solid class that is long on speed and toughness. It's a class that contains excellent prospects in the offensive and defensive lines which is the key to consistent success on the field. It also has an ample assortment of high-potential prospects that aren't as highly rated.

Also remember that neither Gerald Williams or Jonathan Mapu were factored into UT's recruiting ranking and they may both be five-star prospects. Mapu was coming out of high school four years ago and Williams had a four-star rating last year.

Another thing about UT's recruiting ranking that can't be overlooked has to deal with quantity. The Vols signed 22 prospects, 21 of which were counted in Scout.com's calculations. However most of the teams ranked ahead of the Vols signed more prospects. In some cases many more. For example: Florida State signed 31, Texas Tech signed 34 and Mississippi signed 29 as did Oklahoma State. Oklahoma and Notre Dame signed 28 each while Florida and Georgia inked 27. Pittsburgh and Arizona added 25 to their rosters.

Tennessee showed restraint by not overextending its numbers in what was anything other than a buyer's market. In turn, that positions Fulmer & Co. to have a big signing class in 2007 when the in-state prospects are more plentiful and skill position players nationally are of a higher caliber. In fact, the Class of 2007 is shaping up to be as good as any in the last decade.

With the aid of hindsight it's clear, Tennessee's problems last season had less to do with a shortage of talent as they did a loss of focus, lack of discipline and a crisis of confidence. The problems were further compounded by bad luck and a very difficult schedule. Essentially, the offensive system broke down and the staff couldn't fix it.

That resulted in three coaching changes and the return of David Cutcliffe as offensive coordinator. Cutcliffe knows the offense and, just as importantly, he knows how to adjust it to the talent on hand. He's a great tutor for QBs and he has three quarterbacks to work with next fall.

The off-the-field problems that plagued the program for over a year have abated. Should that continue to be the case, Tennessee will be poised to have its typical standout signing class next year.

The key now is for the coaches to bring out the potential of Tennessee's talent, for the players to perform up to their capabilities and for Big Orange fans to have a little patience.


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