Vols Play Keep Away

There's something about the recruiting term "soft verbal" that is intrinsically disconcerting. It's like taking an "almost oath" or making a "partial pledge". It's like being engaged while still accepting calls from E-Harmony.

Although there is no moral equivalence in that last comparison, it does offer an easy to absorb analogy, and invokes an examination of the relative worth of an individual's word in a world of virtual reality.

Neither is it intended to chastise prospects for any lack of character or ethical fortitude. They are well within their rights to change their minds, and they often have very good reasons for revisiting a verbal agreement. Besides in a business that sees head coaches break written agreements to pursue greener pastures with alarming regularity, who could blame a 17 year-old for changing his mind with so many forces tugging on his psyche?

The point is that the so-called soft verbal is a fact of life in football recruiting, and the difference between a good signing class and a great signing class is often determined by the number of such prospects you can acquire or retain.

Phillip Fulmer & Co. are doing a bang-up job in both categories this year. They pulled big defensive tackle William Brimfield away from his commitment to North Carolina and held off the Tar Heels for running back Daryl Vereen of Huntersville, N.C. The 6-foot, 196-pound prospect had a huge senior season for North Mecklenburg High School in which he rushed for county record 2,603 yards and scored 31 touchdowns. Vereen runs a blazing 4.38 time in the 40 and is athletic enough to play on either side of the ball.

Tennessee is also battling Butch Davis' staff for another North Carolina commitment — wide receiver Dwight Jones, who ranks No. 16 nationally at his position. Jones checks in at an imposing 6-foot-4, 210 pounds and brings a dimension of size and toughness to the team that lands him.

The Vols received a confirmation on the commitment by Christian Brothers linebacker Chris Walker today. He originally committed to Tennessee in December after his official visit to UT, but three weeks later he was taking a second look at Michigan, LSU and Alabama. The courtship with Bama began in earnest after the coaching change and Tide assistant Kevin Steele was working Walker hard. However that came to an abrupt half today with word that Walker had canceled a scheduled visit on Wednesday with Steele and Alabama head coach Nick Saban. That cancelation may have been prompted by UT's staff explaining how with no wiggle room left in the Vols scholarship allotment it was time for Walker to commit or get off the pot.

The only other Vol commitment remaining in the "soft verbal" category is defensive end Rufus Williams of Titusville, Fla. He visited Ole Miss after committing to UT and has yet to publicly confirm his pledge. If Tennessee holds on to Williams and re-signs Cody Pope from the Class of 2006, it will have 26 scholarships committed. Assuming all of those qualify adding any other prospects would require some staggering of at least a couple of enrollments.

There are several big names the Vols are still involved with and at least one prospect who falls into the nebulous "silent commitment" category. But that's a subject for next time.

Suffice it to say the Vols are poised for a strong finish.

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