A Winter Without Football

Many factors played into Phillip Fulmer's decline along with Tennessee's football fortunes, but it's clear the seeds of disaster where sewn in 2005 as the Vols failed to post a winning season or make the post season.

The Big Orange bandwagon was stuck in the mud up to the axles. The Vols never regained momentum and the February 2006 prospect harvest that followed was disappointing.

On paper it wasn't a bad class, actually ranked No. 24 nationally by Scout.com; certainly respectable but not by Tennessee or SEC standards. Already bristling from criticism over his first losing campaign as head coach, Fulmer defended his class, as any coach should, but he also took issue with the recruiting sites and analysts that weren't impressed with UT's Class of 2006. Seemingly oblivious to the fact Scout.com had ranked the Vols Class of 2005 No. 1 ahead USC.

Had that 2006 class lived up to its No. 24 ranking, 2008 may have turned out differently. The fact is that it didn't. Nowhere near it. Some from that class never made it to campus while others fell short of their potential. Others were slow to develop and might yet become contributors. Only one turned out to be a starter late in his freshman season. That happened to be Jacques McClendon, who was also the highest rated of UT's 2006 prospects, and the only one chosen to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

Consider that class didn't produce any playmakers of note and only a pair of offensive starters — McClendon and Luke Stocker. It contained no defensive starters, although Daniel Lincoln is the Vols place kicker and punter Chad Cunningham, who played in place of the suspended Britton Colquitt through the first five games. Brent Vinson was signed in that class but required a year at Hargrave Military to gain admission and subsequently re-signed in 2007.

Nick Stephens started six games in 2008 before relinquishing the job back to Jonathan Crompton. Walter Fisher saw significant service in his three seasons on The Hill but primarily as a back-up.

Among those that signed but never played for the Vols were: Defensive lineman Blake Garrettson, tight end Lee Smith, JUCO safety Justin Garrett, and running back/linebacker Dustin Lindsey. Defensive back Stephaun Raines, of Dalton, Ga., attended junior college for two years before re-signing with Tennessee in the Class of 2008. Linebacker Dorian Davis played on special teams before leaving school after the 2007 season.

Offensive lineman Ramone Johnson was in the playing rotation for the Vols last season. Quinton Hancock was on the fringe of the wide receiver rotation in 2007, but he didn't crack the top five in 2008. The rest of the class is still languishing on the depth charts or hiding underneath it. Players such as linemen Victor Thomas, Chase Nelson, Jared Shaw, Cody Pope and Darrius Myers have failed to earn any significant playing time — if any PT period.

The most glaring lack of talent in this class is where UT needed it most in 2008 — wide receivers and playmakers. Offensive players of that ilk from the Class of 2006 contributed 163 total yards and no TDs in 2007 and 139 yards and no TDs in 2008. Stephens threw for 840 yards, four touchdowns and three INTs, two of which were returned for touchdowns. He only completed 63 of 130 attempts for 48.5 percent. He lost 50 yards on 23 rushing attempts. He showed a big arm but also signs of panic, and some of his leadership tactics didn't go over well with his teammates.

LIkewise the Class of 2008, which was ranked No. 35, failed to infuse any meaningful energy or ability in a struggling offense. Tauren Poole saw very limited service as a fourth team tailback. So the Classes of 2006 and 2008 gave UT two starters among 24 and virtually zero offense.

One bad signing class is enough to throw any program into a catch-up mode, while two in three years will almost certainly result in a winter of discontent and early retirement.

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