Can UT class provide immediate help?

As I sat at my office desk on the morning of National Signing Day, the good news continued to pour in for Tennessee. Not only were the Vols keeping their commitments, they signed receiver Ahmad Paige and were about to sign defensive end Rae Sykes of Alcoa, the state's No. 2 rated prospect.

A salesman came by all giddy about Tennessee's class.

``Do you think this could help them win the national championship?'' he asked.

My first reaction: Gimme a break.

My second reaction: It could help UT win an SEC Championship.

I'm the first to say a top-ranked recruiting class usually takes two or three years to pay off. But that's not always the case.

No doubt, two true freshman helped Florida not only win the SEC, but the national championship: running quarterback Tim Tebow and receiver-running back Percy Harvin.

Go back even farther. Georgia was 6-5 in 1979. The next year, the Dawgs won national championship behind a true freshman tailback named Herschel Walker.

But there aren't many Herschel Walkers around. There aren't many Tebows or Harvins, either.

That's why it's dangerous to put too much stock in a great recruiting class paying immediate dividends.

In 1994, Tennessee had the nation's No. 1 class and went 8-4.

In 2005, the Vols had the No. 1 recruiting class and went 5-6.

The norm is what happened to Tennessee.

The exception is what happened to Florida in 2006 and Georgia in 1980.

Having said that, Tennessee's class might be one of the two or three best Phillip Fulmer has ever signed. And, on paper, it appears at least 10 signees could play a prominent role on next year's team.

Eric Berry might be good enough to start at cornerback, after the losses of Jonathan Wade, Antwan Stewart and Inky Johnson.

Junior college defensive backs DeAngelo Willingham and Nevin McKenzie could provide immediate help in the secondary.

At receiver, Brent Vinson, Ahmad Paige, Gerald Jones or junior college transfer Kenny O'Neal could play right away, if not start.

If Texan Lennon Creer is indeed as good as his billing – the No. 6 rated running back in the nation – he could see playing time.

If Kevin Cooper can block, he might play quite a bit at fullback.

The Vols need help along the defensive line. Donald Langley enrolled at mid-term. Ben Martin is a fierce pass-rushing defensive end. Rolando Melancon is a top-notch tackle from Lutcher, La. William Brimfield is a talented 6-6, 320-pound tackle.

Chris Donald is one of the top linebacker prospects in the nation.

Those are some of the signees that could help right away.

Fulmer wouldn't venture to guess which players would play right away. But he was delighted with the signatures he got Wednesday in hopes of returning Tennessee to the power it was in the 1990s.

This class is ranked No. 5 by Scout.com and No. 3 by another recruiting service. That comes on the heels of the top-rated class in 2005.

I was asked if this class would restore Tennessee to the glory days of the ‘90s, when the Vols went 45-5 over a four-year stretch. Or was it simply keeping up with the Joneses, considering Florida and LSU were ranked ahead of Tennessee with South Carolina, Auburn, Georgia and Alabama making someone's top 10.

The answer: Keeping up with the Joneses.

Tennessee doesn't have superior talent to the rest of the SEC like it enjoyed with Florida in the 1990s. No, the SEC is too balanced for that.

Tennessee's talent last season wasn't as good as LSU's or Florida. It wasn't any better than Georgia, Auburn or Arkansas. And it wasn't much better than that of South Carolina and Alabama.

Counting the 2007 recruiting class, Tennessee's talent will rank with the best teams in the SEC, but it won't have such an edge that it will overwhelm teams. Those days are gone.

Tennessee will have to rely on what many teams do to win the SEC: Good coaching and good breaks.

It helped Florida win the national title last year.

It could help Tennessee win the SEC this year.

Here are some interesting notes about players in UT's class.

* Berry said it was a slap in the face that Georgia said it was recruiting him hard, yet didn't know he played quarterback as a junior and safety as a senior.

* Paige said one reason he picked UT over USC is speculation that Reggie Bush took extra benefits which could put the Trojans on NCAA probation.

* Melancon said most people in Tennessee don't know how to pronounce his last name. When will they learn? ``When I take the field,'' he said.

* Running back Daryl Vereen said he rushed for 1,200 yards on 5.6 yards per carry as a junior but gained 2,603 yards on 8.6 yards a run his senior season. He caught UT's attention when he ran a 4.38 at the Vols' summer camp.

* Cornerback C.J. Fleming of Highland Springs in Richmond, Va., played at a school that's been a factory for defensive backs. In his three years, five defensive backs signed with Division I or 1-AA schools and another signed with a Division III school.

* Linebacker Savion Frazier of Woodbridge, Va., was a quarterback his sophomore season, then moved to running back, where he had four 200-yard games late last season. He projects to play outside linebacker at UT.


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