Recruiting on the Rebound

File this recruiting piece under the "what a difference a year makes" category; a means of comparing UT's ongoing Class of 2009 against its disappointing 2008 predecessor.

Did I say disappointing? That's probably not fair seeing that no one from that class has played a down of SEC football yet. But it is a small class of only 18 and rated lower (No. 35 nationally, No. 10 in the SEC) than any Tennessee signing class in over two decades. That's not to say it is short on talent just that it doesn't appear to have the potential and star quality of the Vols usual haul.

To this point the Class of 2009 represents a return to recruiting excellence, while the quick start allows UT to be more selective approaching National Signing Day. Likewise Tennessee's recruiters can focus on fewer and better prospects thus increasing their chances of success. Call it addressing needs while fulfilling wants.

Last year at this time Tennessee had six verbal commitments including three they received pledges from in 2006 — Aaron Douglas, Tauren Poole and T.J. Floyd, who later changed his mind and signed with Michigan. The other three were Carson Anderson, Austin Johnson and Ben Bartholomew. Douglas was the only four-star prospect among those early pledges.

By contrast Tennessee's Class of 2009 has garnered nine commitments with three four-star prospects — JeRon Stokes, Jarvis Giles and Damien Thigpin. Look for Aubrey Phillips to eventually earn that same status bringing that total to four. That happens to be twice as many four-star prospects with only half the numbers as UT's entire Class of 2008 that finished with Douglas and E.J. Abrams-Ward as the only four-star signees.

The ‘08 class didn't commit its ninth member until Dec. 13, and it didn't add No. 10 until Jan. 20 or 16 days before NSD. The ‘09 class will likely reach if not surpass that number before the end of June, as a couple of in-state prospects decide to come aboard before the schollies ship out.

Clearly the Vols have turned things around on the recruiting trail, although some of the reasons for this reversal of fortune are more opaque and require a bit of analysis.

Just as Phillip Fulmer received the lion's share of criticism for a suspect class, he deserves a high degree of recognition for what has to be described as a good start. In deciding for an offensive makeover, which was prompted by the departure of OC David Cutcliffe to Duke with most of UT's offensive staff in tow, Fulmer brings in fresh blood, new views and higher energy. He also picked up three particularly talented recruiters to replace his ace — Trooper Taylor — and acquired some new recruiting territory, too. That has helped better distribute the recruiting load and allowed Fulmer to assume the closer, father-figure roles at which he excels. After all if you have to open with your headliner where do you go from there?

If it's not the headliner again and again, some prospects can get the impression you don't value them as much. Even commitments can begin to wonder as may have well been the case with the aforementioned Floyd. The relationship building has to be established and maintained at the assistants' level or it is subject to breaking down.

When I compare conversations with prospects a year ago to now, the biggest difference I've noticed is most speak highly of their assigned recruiter, their position coach and Coach Fulmer. That's the type of linkage dynamic required to establish the strong sense of family UT emphasizes to players and prospects. Last year I encountered several prospects that didn't know who was recruiting them.

It hasn't hurt that all has been quiet on the eastern front either. After weeks of bad publicity that was the direct result of bad behavior on the part of players, there haven't been any negative breaches. No reported jaywalkers. Nobody late for class. No water balloon fights at the SUB or gold fish swallowing contests at the aquatic center.

Another overlooked point is that despite a down year recruiting Tennessee did have a strong finish, committing eight solid prospects in the last 11 days of the campaign. That helped create some momentum and the Vols have been building on that.

The Orange and White game as well as spring practice sessions gave prospects an opportunity to see UT's offensive system in action instead of just hearing about how it would work. That has made for and an easier sell and increased interest. Another thing the new system has done is give UT a better defined recruiting board focused on prospects that fit the system, as opposed to chasing the best available athlete.

The Vols had good production in Cutcliffe's second stint on The Hill, but the offense lacked an identity and never really got the running game off the ground. At times it appeared to be a tad schizophrenic, perhaps the result of too many designers, a dropoff in talent and overexposure.

If the Vols are going to take advantage of their quick start to the recruiting campaign they need to get off to a better start in the football campaign. Being blown out by Cal, Florida and Alabama in the first half of the season took UT out of the running for a number of elite prospects. That means Tennessee will need to be better on both sides of the ball, but the cohesion on offense and the ability to run the ball against tough opponents will be elements examined under a microscope.

The last thing you want in the SEC, or the recruiting trail for that matter, is the reputation for being a finesse team.

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