Vols Suffer Recruiting Blow

There are three indisputable truths about Phillip Fulmer and recruiting: (1) he can effectively recruit anybody, any place, anytime (2) he offers special appeal to offensive linemen given his extensive background playing and coaching in the trenches, (3) he rarely ever loses a big-time, in-state standout particularly a high profile O-lineman.

That's what makes the loss of Brentwood Academy tackle Alex Bullard to Notre Dame so disappointing and potentially damaging. The fact it follows on the heels of Memphis Braircrest Christian four-star lineman Austin Long's decision to commit to Georgia further compounds the problem.

Finally UT's offensive front is in dire need of reinforcements with the Vols losing every starter and top reserve Vladamir Richard by the end of the 2009 season. Getting O-linemen in 2009 is the only way to address the depth problem since virtually all prospects for the front five will need at least a year of seasoning to play in the SEC. There are exceptions but the Vols haven't had one since Aaron Sears in 2002. There are good underclassmen candidates — Ramone Johnson, Darrius Sawtelle, William Brimfield — who might prove equal to the task, but UT needs to sign line prospects that can compete with them for starting positions in 2010.

When you add opportunity to the other positives UT has to offer, it's almost inconceivable it would have lost out on the state's top two offensive line prospects in 2009. Austin Long is more understandable since Memphis Briarcrest doesn't exactly a pipeline to The Hill. In 2005 the Vols lost five-star offensive tackle Michael Oher to Ole Miss. He started for the Rebels as a true freshman and was drafted in April. Of course, Memphis is always problematical for Tennessee as far as recruiting goes because of its location and split allegiances — Memphis, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee. It should be pointed out that the Vols never led for Long but were considered a legitimate contender.

However, it was different where Bullard was concerned. UT was always considered to be his favorite. In all fairness, Bullard didn't anoint Tennessee as the team to beat. Neither did he discourage such conclusions.

"I'll say definitely Tennessee will be there at the end," he told IT during an April 15 interview, but then he added something that set off alarms in Big Orange Country. "They're a school I'm really interested in right now and really like. I was always a UT fan and a Notre Dame fan growing up."

The Volunteers' loss is the Fighting Irish's gain, as Bullard offers size, strength, versatility and mobility. His father was an NFL regular in the offensive line, and his mother was a very good basketball player. He is an excellent student and has a very engaging personality. He visited Notre Dame twice and fell in love with the campus and community. It's understandable.

Interestingly enough, Tennessee lost Knoxville Catholic four-star wide receiver/defensive back Harrison Smith to Notre Dame last year. They also lost Chris Jordan, a teammate of Bullard's at Brentwood Academy who signed with Alabama in 2007.

With Long and Bullard no longer on the market, Tennessee will no doubt redouble its efforts to secure the signature of Aubrey Phillips, a 6-foot-6, 340-pound offensive lineman who played at Memphis Booker T. Washington High School until transferring to Olive Branch (Miss.) for his senior season. Phillips is another prototypical weak-side tackle with the physical skills needed to protect the QB's backside along with the discipline not to jump offsides.

Phillips, who has 3.85 GPA, reports offers from Duke, Georgia Tech, Memphis, Penn State and Tennessee among others. The big lineman may have been overlooked early because of his inner city high school's lack of tradition. However Tennessee has known about Phillips for a while and was the first school to offer him a scholarship. He attended summer football camp at UT last year and has formed a favorable opinion of the program.

Another point that may help the Vols with Phillips is their 2008 success in pulling Marlon Walls from Olive Branch. Like Phillips, he played his first three seasons of high school football in the Bluff City.

Other in-state o-lineman Tennessee is evaluating are Will Jackson (Knoxville Farragutt), Sean Conway (Father Ryan), Courtney Easterwood (Christian Brothers), Chase Phillip (Knoxville South Doyle) and Jebb Lenhart (Pigeon Forge).

The Volunteer State has four prospects ranked in the nation's Top 300 and the Vols have lost Long at No. 91 and Bullard No. 282. The others are Marlon Brown of Memphis Harding Academy at No. 12 and Eric Gordon of Nashville Hillsboro at No. 147. In 2008 the Vols lost four of the state's top five prospects with Smith going to Notre Dame and Jordan, Don'ta Hightower and Barrett Jones signing with Alabama's No. 1 ranked class nationally.

For decades now Tennessee fans have heard how hard it is for UT to be competitive in the SEC because of a much smaller recruiting base than teams in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina have. And it's true. But you can't continue to lose the best high school prospects the state has to offer and complain about a diminished talent base, too.

The wait on Marlon Brown to decide just got a lot longer for the Vols and their fans.

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