As bad as it's been for Tennessee through the long descent of the Phil Fulmer era and the stunning defection of Lane Kiffin, Vol fans seem to be spending the offseason bracing themselves for the real thud come this fall, which is shaping up as the culmination of years of dread and mounting attrition. UT goes into 2010 with a totally revamped coaching staff, a quarterback competition among contenders who weren't on campus prior to the spring semester, an entirely new offensive line, gaping voids where first-round draft picks Eric Berry and Dan Williams toiled the last three years and looming dates against Oregon, Florida, LSU, Georgia and Alabama before Halloween. At this point it's not like they need anyone to tell them it's shaping up as a rough year.
In fact, the general malaise having been well established since the spring exits of rising sophomore stars Bryce Brown and Aaron Douglas, the local Knoxville News-Sentinel went straight for the roots over the weekend, namely the diminishing returns on the recruiting trail, and with the once-hyped 2007 recruiting class, in particular. For obvious reasons: The '07 crop was universally rated as one of the top handful of classes in the country, a badly-needed counterpunch to Florida's rapid rise under Urban Meyer, and helped deliver a surprise SEC East title as true freshmen. Three years later, it's looking more likely to go down as the class that produced the amazing Eric Berry, and not much else.
Aside from the All-American safety, only seven other signees out of 31 have become regular starters, and none have come close to being named All-SEC. The News-Sentinel calculates that an astounding 17 members of the class have already moved on with at least one year of eligibility remaining, including former five-stars Chris Donald, Brent Vinson and Kenny O'Neal. The list is a monument to wayward talent.
And yet, the disintegrating '07 class also falls within the larger pattern of disappointment here – since the solid 2004 class that eventually produced 14 starters, five All-SEC picks and four draft picks, waves of early departures and diminishing returns has become the norm.
The hyped 2005 class, initially regarded as the best incoming group in the SEC, produced its share of heroes – eventual All-SEC picks Rico McCoy, Montario Hardesty, Chris Scott and Dan Williams, as well as mainstays Josh McNeil, Wes Brown and Lucas Taylor – but is equally synonymous for its flops. The only five-star player in the class, Demetrice Morley, suffered through multiple arrests and academic issues, was kicked off the team by the Fulmer administration, returned after a year away (including a stint living out of his car), and was booted for good before the end of Kiffin's first spring practice; blue-chip running back LaMarcus Coker was the team's best runner when not repeatedly failing drug tests, a habit that earned him a string of suspensions and a final dismissal after his fourth failed test (that we know of) in 2007; hyped defensive tackle Demonte Bolden, a repeat signee after a year in academic purgatory at Hargrave Military Academy, hung on through the end of his career but never cracked the starting lineup on a regular basis.
The '05 class also produced quarterback/giant catfish Jonathan Crompton, a top-rated prospect who was benched amid a hurricane of scorn for the Vols' 1-3 start in 2008. Excluding a win over Vanderbilt in which he was pulled after throwing an interception on his only attempt, Crompton left with a 9-10 record as a starter, the first regular UT quarterback to graduate shy of a winning record in almost 50 years.
The 2006 crop can't be accused of disappointing, only because, by Tennessee standards, it had hardly any expectations in the first place: In the wake of the 5-7 collapse in 2005, the Vols failed to sign a player ranked in Rivals' top 100, and only picked up five four-star prospects in the entire class. One of those, offensive lineman Jacques McClendon, was eventually drafted. Kicker Daniel Lincoln was voted All-SEC as a junior. Otherwise, despite the odd starter (Luke Stocker, LaMarcus Thompson), the pickings turned out to be even slimmer than they looked on signing day.
So far, that's been even more depressingly true for the class of 2008, a generally panned crop from the outset that, two years in, has produced all of two starters, offensive lineman Aaron Douglas and linebacker Herman Lathers – and Douglas just left the team in the spring, giving up an entrenched spot at left tackle to find himself at an Arizona junior college. The '09 class isn't off to the greatest start, either, thanks to two of its most hyped members, Nu'Keese Richardson and Bryce Brown, who have already been shown early exits for armed robbery and chronic flakiness, respectively, leaving all of two members from the last two recruiting classes – Lathers and safety Janzen Jackson, briefly suspended himself before being cleared in the same robbery that brought down Richardson and classmate Mike Edwards last November – with starting experience going into this fall.
Even among freshmen and sophomores, finding only two starters in two entire recruiting classes is a desperate situation; add the holdovers from the '07 class (Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, Ben Martin, Chris Walker, Art Evans) and the 2010 lineup still features only seven returning starters from the last three classes. Around a dozen members of the '08-09 classes who haven't played much to date are penciled in for major roles as sophomores and juniors, only a couple of them (running back David Oku, cornerback Eric Gordon) stepping in with unusual levels of advance praise as recruits. If the year ends with any fewer than that as entrenched starters going into 2011, the rebuilding effort under Derek Dooley could be a very long and painful one.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.