Vols Need Big Rebound

Irregularity reigns supreme in Big Orange Country and the ramifications are being felt in the current recruiting campaign, which has seen the Vols roar out of the gate with 11 early commitments, but only one from a four-star prospect and no pledges from the five-star variety.

Of course, successful college football programs as well as prized prospects aren't built upon stars alone, but Phillip Fulmer's reputation as one of the top recruiters in the country was achieved through his ability to tap into that upper tier of gridiron talent from across the country on a consistent basis.

To this point, Fulmer & Co. have done a good job of securing in-state talent and picking off a few athletic prospects with excellent speed and solid potential from neighboring states. Undoubtedly, there have been a few reaches on UT's Class of 2007 commitment list that are atypical for this early in the process. However none of these reaches have been unreasonable.

On the other hand, the Vols have yet to land one of the trio of four-star prospects from Tennessee, which includes safety/linebacker Harrison Smith of Knoxville Catholic, defensive end Rae Sykes of Alcoa and linebacker Chris Donald of Huntingdon. Both Donald and Harrison were expected to make an announcement prior to the start of their senior seasons, instead each has decided to make other visits before settling on a school.

Such delays are not unusual in the topsy-turvy world of college football recruiting, particularly among premiere prospects who have an assortment of options and considerable leverage. The concern where Smith and Donald are concerned is that both are being recruited by Notre Dame, and that each opted to take other visits when it appeared they were ready to decided between the Vols and Fighting Irish. Could Notre Dame's brain trust recommended they put off any announcement?

In recruiting strategy 101 such a diversionary tactic is by the text book and designed to take pressure off prospects that may be headed out of state to play college football. Notre Dame, like Tennessee, recruits nationally and normally signs more players from out of state than in state. They know the earlier you commit an out-of-state star the harder you have to work to sign them away from Home State U. Sometimes it's better to keep everyone guessing than to have the recruit dogged day and night by disappointed fans that may eventually apply enough pressure to change hearts and minds.

That's particularly true in the cases of Smith and Donald because both grew up fans of Tennessee football, as were their families. There's a chance one or both may already be silent commitments to the Fighting Irish. There's a chance one or both may end up Volunteering for service in the Big Orange Army, and live the dream of racing through the giant T on a crisp October afternoon to the roar of a packed to the rafters Neyland Stadium crowd. One or both may be very conflicted and truly undecided.

There's practically no chance either Smith or Donald is a silent commitment to UT since there would be no reason to delay an annoucement. Unless... they have concerns about the direction of the program, and want to see how the Vols look against a front-loaded schedule that features contests against California, Florida and Georgia before intermission (bye week) of the 12-game slate. With two of those games in Knoxville, big-time prospects from coast to coast will get a good gauge on the state of football on The Hill.

There's also little chance Smith and Donald haven't heard widely varying forecasts of the Vols football future, even without the input of rival recruiters. Coming off the first losing season in Phillip Fulmer's 14-year tenure as head coach, has afflicted all but the most rosy of Big Orange optimist with double vision. They see UT in decline. They see UT fighting back with a vengeance. They change by the day and hour.

Point being: if Tennessee fans are conflicted about the near future of the program, so are prospects, especially the four and five star out-of-state variety the Vols require to compete with the beasts of the SEC East.

If the Vols put together early wins and momentum, get some high exposure and positive buzz, their prospects, both home and away, will improve dramatically.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories