Silent Night Before Signing Day

Here we are a matter of hours away from national signing day and rumors of ‘silent commitments' continue to make the rounds in hushed whispers from high places.

The story goes that Tennessee has "several commitments" that haven't gone public either to insulate prospects from in-state pressure, or to fake off the competition. The theory insists that it's these key prospects that will give the Vols a late boost and cap what has been a disappointing recruiting class, to this point, on a high note.

Whether these commitments exist in reality or are merely a fabrication of fertile imaginations is an issue of ongoing debate. What we do know is that Tennessee is in need of a strong finish to post a respectable season.

Again the term "respectable" requires qualification: Respectable by Tennessee's standards would be a top 15 class — a ranking the Vols have never failed to attain, when averaging the top five ranking services, during Phillip Fulmer's illustrious 11-year era at UT.

As it currently stands, using The Insider's national rankings, Tennessee checks in at No. 22 and that's with Eric Young as a commitment. Young has said he's a "soft commitment" to Tennessee and that his choices were down to South Carolina, Clemson, North Carolina and Tennessee. Without Young, the Vols would drop out of the top 25.

That's a long way from the territory the Vols normally occupy this time of year. And it's a drop that won't be easily swallowed by a Big Orange fan base still choking on the nocuous fumes of a bad season and rotten bowl game.

To appreciate just how far the Vols are off form in this recruiting campaign, consider that Florida, LSU, Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State are all currently rated ahead of Tennessee, while Arkansas and Ole Miss are still within striking distance.

It's not only that Tennessee currently ranks in the lower half of the SEC, but that a low-profile program like Mississippi State complete with cracker box stadium, one-horse town and a coach on his last professional leg could be more attractive to prospective prospects than UT.

But that's a subject for another story. The focus for now is on what pleasant surprise prospects might be in the offering tomorrow. The list of suspects includes: Bret Smith, Turk McBride, Aaron Sears, Michael Bush, John "The Beast" Beason, Matthew Malele, Richard Cook, Chris Ellis, Anthony McDaniel or Robert Meachem.

Here's how we rank the likelihood of these 10 candidates breaking their silence and declaring for Tennessee. (Note: Because silent commitments could theoretically be any high school senior or junior college graduate, the rankings the top 10 most likely to.)

No. 1: Richard Cook (Could concerns over playing time be driving this plum from the Peach State? Did he commit on Fulmer's in-home visit last week?)

No. 2: Aaron Sears (He's been offered by Miami, Ohio State, Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee, but has only visited the Vols and Buckeyes. Auburn, where his brother played, is a strong contender but UT has had the assistance of Jayson Swain and might pull a signing day surprise.)

No. 3: Bret Smith (We're hearing conflicting tales on this one, but Smith's recruitment does resemble the same methodology used to extract Cedric Houston from Arkansas.)

No. 4: Anthony McDaniel (This product of Columbia, S.C. wouldn't seem likely to escape the grasp of Lou Holtz but he's a defensive tackle and UT apparently didn't offer JC DT Zarnell Fitch when he visited last weekend. Would the Vols turn down a solid talent like Fitch unless they knew they had a great prospect on board?)

No. 5: Turk McBride (The nation's No. 3 defensive end prospect added Ohio State back to his list of finalists yesterday. Is the move just the latest act of subterfuge or is UT on the outside looking in? McBride is the biggest name on the board and one of the few to remain uncommitted.)

No. 6: John Beason (The Beast had a great recent visit to Miami but remains uncommitted. He has the perfect physical makeup to be a Tennessee linebacker and the Vols have had great success converting safeties into backers under John Chavis. One of the most underrated prospects in the nation that would be a huge signing day surprise for Tennessee.)

No. 7: Chris Ellis (He's the third defensive end on this list for a reason. Tennessee didn't offer JC DE Mike Montgomery last weekend even though he's one of the top junior college prospects left out there. That doesn't seem like a risk Fulmer would have taken without there being somebody out there he liked better that he knew Vols would land.)

No. 8: Matthew Malele (The big guy has the ideal size and strength to be a run-stopper and Tennessee is in need of a player of his ilk on the D-Line next season. The Californian is looking at three other schools on the west coast, but recently said distance wasn't a factor in his choice.)

No 9: Michael Bush (Operating on our belief that not every top 30 quarterback prospect in American could walk away from the opportunity to start at Tennessee in ‘04, we push Mr. Bush to No. 9. Also, he's had the least to say of anybody on this list which might make him the most qualified as a silent commitment.)

No. 10: Robert Meachem (There's probably a better chance of Steve Smith being a silent commitment than Meachem, but he still lists the Vols and thus we must still list him.)

That's a few guesses on this NSD eve, as we wait to see if silence is really golden or just fools gold.

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