Star Bright, Star Lite

If you're into star watching you might not be very excited by Tennessee's recruiting campaign which hasn't so much as sniffed a five-star prospect to this point.

The Vols' lack of star power among its current 11 verbal commitments is only part of the story. They're not on any five-star's list of favorites, plus the only four-star prospect they have committed is Aaron Douglas of Maryville, who actually pledged in 2006.

Certainly there is no rule stating you have to sign a single five-star prospect to have a solid class, but it would be most unusual if the Vols don't end up signing at least one.

If there is a rule regarding five-star prospects it would be that they are not all created equal. UT's 2007 signing class included four of the nation's 40, or so, prospects rated five stars. Eric Berry and Brent Vinson ended up starting in the secondary as true freshmen while Ben Martin played sparingly and Chris Donald redshirted. It should be noted that Berry was rated a five-star cornerback and ended up playing safety, while Brent Vinson was rated a five-star receiver but excelled at cornerback.

That's part of the problem with projecting any five-star prospect, as early success is often determined by the needs of the team that signs them. Some languish on the bench behind established veterans. Others learn to tread baptismal waters until they are able to make a splash.

This isn't to minimize the importance of five-star prospects because it is from this elite group that the difference makers most often come. UT players like Reggie White, Carl Pickens, Chuck Webb, Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning, Tee Martin, Al Wilson, Shaun Ellis, Marcus Nash, Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry are but a few of the five-star successes Big Orange fans have enjoyed over the last 25 years.

A parade of five-star prospects poured into UT during Phillip Fulmer's early years as head coach and were the hallmark of his startling success through 2001. The 2005 and 2007 classes followed in that tradition with three and four five-star prospects, respectively. Scout.com ranked Tennessee's 2005 class No. 1 nationally and the 2007 class No. 4.

If the Vols are shut out in the five-star market in 2008, as appears to be the case, it will be the second time in the last three years that has happened. The 2005 class was ranked No. 24 nationally and No. 7 in the SEC. The 2008 class is currently ranked No. 43 nationally by Scout, but should push into the top 30 when completed. Every other Tennessee recruiting class of the decade ranked in the top 10 nationally and featured at least a pair of five-star prospects.

That inconsistency could be costly as UT attempts to lift the program back to the lofty levels of the 1990's. It's a simple matter of success begets success. It may sound counterintuitive but five-star athletes tend to cluster, with the possible exceptional of USC where they seem to swarm.

Compounding the problem and establishing a powerful parallel to Tennessee's disappointing Class of 2006 is another upheaval on the coaching staff which will result in an extreme makeover of the offensive staff including the potential loss of recruiting ace Trooper Taylor.

Here's the irony: Fulmer gained recognition for his work with the offensive line and his ability to recruit as an assistant at Tennessee. He was popular with players and a rising star on the staff. (Sound a little like Taylor?)

When the offensive coordinator's came open in 1989, Johnny Majors could have gone in a number of directions, but decided on Fulmer. Coach Majors may have simply felt Fulmer was the best man for the job, and he did prove highly capable in the role.

Still Majors could have gone with a proven O.C. instead of a neophyte. That had been his M.O. over the years. Perhaps he felt some pressure to offer Fulmer the position as opposed to losing him to another school or the pro ranks where Fulmer's achievements as a line coach were gaining notice.

Now, 17 years later, Fulmer finds himself in a position not dissimilar to Major's in 1989 when Walt Harris left for the head coaching job at Pacific, opening the high-profile O.C. post at UT. Does he stay in-house and promote his top recruiter and most accomplished remaining offensive assistant? Or does he let Trooper walk and increase the risk of another substandard signing class with a widening talent gap?

Having experienced firsthand what can happened in the case of the former, it's reasonable to conclude Fulmer might opt for the latter. That means Taylor is bound for Baylor and UT's star search is in a lurch.


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