Fight For The 300

Any evaluation of Phillip Fulmer's performance as a recruiter has to have a starting point that recognizes Tennessee's in-state talent base is consistently thin in top tier prospects especially by comparison to the teams UT has to battle against in the SEC.

It's a point that has been brought up in this space on prior occasions, but with each new crop of seniors the stark reality is further underscored. Take for instance's recently updated Top 300 which is probably a more meaningful gauge than a top 100, or a cobbled together preseason high school All-American team.

This year's top 300 list once again reveals the uneven playing field on which Fulmer & Co. must contend. There are four prospects from Tennessee to make earn a place in that prestigious group that includes: wide receiver Marlon Brown of Memphis Harding Academy at No. 12 overall, Austin Long of Memphis Briarcrest Christian School at No. 91 overall, Eric Gordon a cornerback at Nashville Hillsboro checks in at No. 147 and Alex Bullard a lineman out of Brentwood Academy is listed at No. 283.

Naturally the Vols have recruited all of these prospects. Long committed to Georgia last week, but UT remains a strong contender for Brown, Gordon and Bullard. Still if they are fortunate enough to sign every member of this talented trio they would still lag far behind what their chief rivals can achieve with in-state athletes by just getting 40 percent of their state's elite prospects.

Lets take a quick look at the recruiting situations in Georgia and Florida for comparison's sake because these are the Vols' chief rivals in the SEC East and the teams they have to beat to play for championships. In fact Georgia, Florida and Tennessee are the only team's to win East Division titles. When you consider the intrinsic disadvantage the Vols face in terms of home state talent, winning five division titles and tying for another in 16 seasons under Fulmer.

Granted the Vols have lost their last three SEC title tilts in Atlanta, but when you consider the competition that's no shame. LSU went on to win the 2007 national championship, Auburn went 14-0 in 2004 and should have played for the national title. In 2001 LSU was in the midst of an 11-game winning streak that included the last six games of 2001 and the first five of 2002. The Tigers won the national title in 2003. Collectively those three opponents had a record of 36-5 the year's they defeated Tennessee, and finished No. 1, No. 2 and No. 7.

UT's ability to remain competitive against Florida and Georgia is no small feat especially when you take into account the in-state talent disparity. This season is typical as Tennessee has four top 300 ranked prospects in the state compared to 44 for Florida and 22 in Georgia. So when the Vols lose a Tennessee prospect to either the Gators or Dogs it really hurts. While the Gators and Dawgs have hog shares of the talent, the other four teams in the SEC East — UT, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and South Carolina have a combined 11 top 300 prospects. That's half as many as Georgia has by itself and only one-fourth of the top tier prospects the Sunshine State produces.

Fortunately, the Vols' success recruiting beyond the borders of the Volunteer State ranks right along side Notre Dame and Michigan as the best in the NCAA. That's what has allowed Tennessee to remain competitive in the East. It is why Fulmer is a combined 16-16 against two SEC rivals that don't have to travel as far, work as hard, or risk as much by overextending their reach as UT's staff of frequently flyers that must.

Fulmer has committed a pair of top 300 prospects already this season in No. 50 JeRon Stokes of Pennsylvania and No. 241 Damion Thigpen of Virginia. In 2007 the Vols got the top player from Georgia (Eric Berry) the top player from Ohio (Ben Martin) and the player of the year in Oklahoma (Gerald Jones). They also landed top 100 players from Louisiana (Ahmad Paige), Texas (Lennon Creer) as well as a top 300 player from Michigan (Darrius Sawtelle) and from Maryland (Donald Langley). At the same time UT kept in-state stars like Chris Donald, Chris Walker, B. J. Coleman and Dennis Rogan. Finally the Vols picked up a couple JUCO All-Americans from California in DeAngelo Willingham and Kenny O'Neal and another proven JC DB in Nevin McKenzie from Texas.

It's a good example of how far UT has to range to lock up a top five class, and why Fulmer is one of the best, if not the best, recruiting head coaches in the business.

It's also the reason he would not be as easy to replace as some might imagine.

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