Staff upheaval hurt UT

On paper, Tennessee had its worst recruiting class in Phillip Fulmer's 16 years as head coach.

The Vols were ranked in the mid-30s nationally by several recruiting services and ninth or 10th in the SEC.

For a program used to being among the top 10 nationally, that's a huge hit.

So what happened? How did Arkansas – which changed head coaches – have a better year? How did Auburn lose both coordinators and sign more good players?

You can point to several factors. You can blame Fulmer being on the hot seat from the time the Vols lost to Florida in September until the Nov. 10 win over Arkansas. You can cite several SEC schools almost closing the borders to opposing recruiters. You can point out the Vols didn't fare well within their own state.

But the main problem was staff upheaval.

Tennessee lost four offensive staff members: receivers coach Trooper Taylor, offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, running backs coach Kurt Roper and recruiting coordinator Matt Luke.

That, more than anything, had a negative impact on UT's recruiting class.

Tennessee signed 18 players, not counting the January return of safety Demetrice Morley and the anticipated arrival this summer of tight end Brandon Warren, a transfer from Florida State who is taking classes at Pellissippi State Community College.

Taylor could have signed three or four more players. Cutcliffe was going to get a visit from blue-chip quarterback Terrell Pryor of Jeannette, Pa., and might have landed the dual-threat quarterback. Pryor and Cutcliffe were so close, Pryor was texting Duke's new coach just days before signing day.

If you give Roper and Luke just one signee, the Vols could have landed 24 to 26 players, jumping Tennessee into the top 20 nationally.

Fulmer correctly pointed out you can't judge a class until three or four years down the road. If 10 to 12 of these players become starters and four or five make All-SEC, this will go down as a very good class.

If not, it could go down as the worst class Fulmer has signed.

Tennessee offered a scholarship to 10 in-state players and signed just five – Preston Bailey, Ben Bartholomew, Aaron Douglas, Montorio Hughes and Rod Wilks.

They lost three to Alabama – lineman Barrett Jones, linebacker Don'ta Hightower and athlete Chris Jordan. They lost lineman Alex Hurts to LSU and Alcoa quarterback Randall Cobb to Kentucky.

Batting .500 in baseball is great. Batting .500 in your backyard in football recruiting is unacceptable.

It's worth noting that 14 in-state players signed with schools such as Miami, Florida State, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Arkansas, Memphis, Oklahoma State, Indiana and Ole Miss but were not offered by the Vols.

It's also worth noting that Tennessee has other good recruiters on the staff besides the departed Taylor and Cutcliffe. But none of them had banner years in recruiting. And it was unfortunate for UT that the position of need – defensive tackle – was being recruited mostly by Taylor. While UT's defensive staff remained in tact, they were able to land just one defensive tackle.

The one – Hughes – was discovered during a Tennessee high school all-star game in December. One UT coach called him a ``freak.'' Fulmer said Hughes compared favorably at this stage to former Vol star Justin Harrell.

Fulmer also compared linebacker Marlon Walls, who had been committed to Ole Miss, to Leonard Little. That, like the measure of a recruiting class, remains to be seen.

It hurt that on signing day, the Vols lost offensive lineman Antoine McClain of Anniston, Ala., to Clemson. McClain had been privately committed to UT for about two months and his coach told UT the night before signing day that McClain would sign with the Vols. Clemson also won a couple of other recruiting battles with UT.

Tennessee didn't sign a player outside of the Southeast. In some years, the Vols' class has spanned 12 or 13 states. This time, the crop came from seven states.

And Tennessee didn't get a player from South Carolina, Texas, California, Virginia, Ohio, Arkansas or Kentucky. To get shut out of those seven states is a rarity.

While Fulmer said he doesn't pay much attention to rankings, he did say he was concerned that UT's class wasn't in the top 30 because of the negative perception.

Despite this class not being strong on paper, it has some bright spots.

Tennessee got the top prospect in the state of Tennessee in tight end Aaron Douglas and the top player in North Carolina in athlete E.J. Abrams-Ward. They got a top-notch quarterback in Casey Kelly of Sarasota, Fla. Kelly is an outstanding baseball prospect who figures to be a high Major League draft pick in June. He might opt for pro baseball if offered enough money.

Interestingly, Kelly's father was a minor league manager in Richmond, Va., and became friends with then-Richmond coach Dave Clawson, the Vols' new offensive coordinator. Clawson threw out the first pitch at several minor league games in Richmond.

Cornerback Prentiss Waggner intercepted 16 passes as a junior in Clinton, La. Rod Wilks is a top-notch receiver. Gerald Williams is a blue-chip linebacker-defensive end. Steven Fowlkes is an athletic defensive end. Tauren Poole is a quality running back. Ben Bartholomew is a better athlete than his older brother, Will, who started at fullback on UT's national championship team. And Bailey is considered a terrific line prospect.


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