Recruiting: The Silent Thriller

Tennessee's season of discontent has been difficult for Vol fans to endure and it is further compounded by consternation over UT's current state of recruiting.

Perhaps the most frequently asked question right behind what's wrong with the Vols? is what¹s wrong with Tennessee recruiting? A devastating run of injuries is the primary culprit behind UT's worst regular season in the highly successful Phillip Fulmer era, although an inordinate amount of penalties, turnovers and an alarming lack of focus, no doubt, greased the skids.

The second question, regarding the state of Tennessee recruiting, is much simpler to answer, nothing.

Sure, the Vols only have a pair of oral commitments and aren't currently ranked in the top 25 nationally, but what does that really mean? The first thing it demonstrates is that recruiting analysts have far too much time on their hands when they can start ranking classes based on oral commitments with national signing day still 75 days away. Secondly, it indicates that followers of recruiting are insatiable for any news or rumor, good or bad.

That second issue is understandable because success in recruiting almost always parallels prosperity on the field and portends a bright football future. Besides, without that high interest level in recruiting it would be difficult for web sites like Inside Tennessee to remain economically viable.

When we can't report on commitments, we try to fill the gap by writing about players Tennessee is known ot have an interest in and who, in turn, are interested in Tennessee. Certainly there's no shortage there. The Vols are currently listed as a finalists with eight of the top 10 players in the South Region, according The Insiders panel of experts, as well as many other top 10 prospects in the other three regions of the country.

Unfortunately, when the vast majority of your signees have to come from outside the friendly borders of the Volunteer State, gaining an early oral commitment becomes much more problematical. A good example is the case of Carnell "Cadillac" Williams who was essentially committed to Tennessee from the summer before his senior year. He finally made a public announcement on his intentions to attend Tennessee in January of 2001, sending Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville into a tizzy.

The next thing you know the entire Auburn coaching staff arrives on Williams' front door step for the school's official in-home visit. In what was tantamount to an intervention, they convinced Williams to visit the campus and eventually turned a Tennessee oral commitment into an Auburn signee. (Instead of taking a Cadillac, Alabama would have offered one.)

We won't even go into the painful details of Chris Simms' sudden reversal in 1999, which cost the Vols more than a QB, but again it proves that oral commitments are only as good as the word of a 17 year-old high school student, even when given on national television from Madison Square Garden.

In the case of Jason Witten, his word was his bond. He committed to Tennessee in April of 1999 and remained steadfast until national signing day nine months later despite heavy in-home pressure to go to Virginia Tech where his brother was a wide receiver.

Witten could have avoided a lot of the intense speculation that surrounded his situation by simply keeping his commitment to himself and somebody on the Vols coaching staff. And with Witten we're talking about a true Tennessean. Imagine the scrutiny and pressure an out of state blue chipper is place under after he commits to Tennessee.

Cedric Houston of Clarendon, Ark., practically had to go into hiding after he announced for the Vols, as his family was continually barraged with questions about why he was going wasn't going to Fayetteville. Some Razorback faithful even tried to pin the decision on his high school head coach, Bobby Hart. During the peak of the turmoil, Houston Nutt made his in-home visit and afterward the Clarendon senior said he wasn't sure any longer where he was going to go. Houston left it at that until he showed up at his high school on Feb. 4, 2001, and inked with Tennessee.

Later Houston would reveal that he knew he was going to Tennessee all along, he just didn't want his family to have to deal with the fallout from his decision. By the way, another highly-ranked Arkansas tailback in that same class was De'Arrius Howard of West Memphis, who listed Tennessee as his leader until an 11th hour switch to the Razorbacks. Howard would be named Arkansas' high school player of the year over Houston who had a much better season, averaging over 10 yards per carry and scoring a state record 35 touchdowns, as a two-way star for an undefeated state title team. Houston's case graphically illustrates how there are often consequences for highly-ranked prospects who leave their state.

And the competition for prospects in border states has intensified this year. Kentucky and Louisville are persuading prospects there's football gold in the Bluegrass State. Virginia and Virginia Tech are fighting to hold on to every quality D-I caliber player in their territory, while North Carolina is doing much better than expected and N.C.State is riding a wave of resurgence to better in-state recruiting. The story is much the same in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina,where UT faces competition from two major D-I programs.

That's why there is nothing surprising in Fulmer's revealing marks at Tuesday's news conference that the Vols have only two commitments "that you (the public) know about. Sure, we'd like to have six or eight at this point. But I think that's about where we are.²

There are also other factors involved what seems like a slow start to the recruiting season by Tennessee standards. Most of the top national prospects haven't even concluded their high school playoffs yet, and many won't take any official visits until they do.

The Vols are positioned to do very well down the stretch and appear ready to post another top 10 class. That ranking could be higher, but UT only has about 15 scholarships left to offer after oral commitments from Jared Hostetter and junior college linebacker John Poe.

If there is an area of concern at this point it might be with receivers, and that position is directly impacted by quarterback. Most topflight receivers can't see themselves at a school unless they can see themselves with a quarterback, and the Vols don¹t have a commitment there, yet.

In fact, the country's best quarterbacks often commit early in order to help recruit the class they come in with. Kyle Wright is currently doing a bang-up job of that for Miami as is Robert Lane at LSU.

If the Vols commit a Chris Leak or JaMarcus Russell that problem should be eliminated. Of course, Tennessee thought the same thing in 1999 when Simms was on the phones trying to convince some of the country's best wideouts to follow him to Knoxville.

Unfortunately, Simms' pitch had a catch and the Vols were left on the Longhorns of the proverbial dilemma.

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