February 08, 2011
Safety Janzen Jackson is withdrawing from Tennessee for "personal issues," per coach Derek Dooley, which is enough of a blow for the Volunteers in itself: Jackson is a former five-star recruit just hitting the prime of his college career as a rising junior, and was the only Vol voted All-SEC in 2010 – first or second team – by league coaches. He's the best player on the team, and he could be gone for good.
Even if Jackson makes it back in time to play this fall, though, his departure (along with that of former classmate Jerod Askew, formally dismissed Monday for a violation of team rules) throws the utter failure of the Vols' 2009 recruiting class – the only class inked by Lane Kiffin as Tennessee's head coach – into sharp relief. At the time, Kiffin's haul was hailed as a triumph in the wake of a sagging effort by his deposed predecessor, Phil Fulmer, a late rally that Rivals ultimately ranked as the tenth-best incoming class the country. The other major services were equally enthusiastic.
Barely two years later, all references to the "Kiffin Class" in Knoxville should come with a warning label: May spontaneously combust at any moment. And the flames start at the very top – of the five Tennessee signees that ranked among Rivals' top 100 overall prospects in '09, Jackson's exit brings the score to oh-for-five:
• Janzen Jackson: Longtime LSU commit quickly worked his way into the starting rotation as a true freshman, until he was mixed up in a wrong place/wrong time arrest for armed robbery (see below); with that incident apparently behind him, Jackson returned the lineup to earn second-team All-SEC honors from league coaches as a sophomore. With Monday's news, his future in Knoxville is again in serious doubt.
• Nu'Keese Richardson: Longtime Florida commit – and inspiration for Kiffin's infamous "Urban had to cheat" dig against Urban Meyer – caught eight garbage-time passes as a true freshman before a swift, ignominious exit for allegedly sticking up a gas station customer along with Jackson and another classmate. While decked out in Tennessee gear.
• Jerod Askew: Fulmer's only high-profile commit redshirted in 2009, failed to log a tackle last year on defense or special teams and was just booted from the team.
• David Oku: Nation's No. 1 "all-purpose" back saw the field as a return man, but made little impact there and was a nonentity on offense, rushing for a grand total of 75 yards against SEC defenses over two years; announced last month he plans to transfer at the end of the spring semester.
Not only are zero of his most touted signees on track to make it to their junior season in Knoxville, but at the time, they were almost unanimously regarded as Kiffin's kids: Aside from Askew, all of the above were surprising, eleventh-hour coups thought to be heading elsewhere almost up to the moment they signed with the Volunteers. So was four-star defensive back Darren Myles, another signing day victory who made no significant contributions before being dismissed by Dooley as a repeat offender last year.
In all, of the eight 4/5-star players who committed to Kiffin from December 2008 forward, only two – cornerbacks Eric Gordon and Marsalis Teague – are currently listed on the 2011 roster. When you pull up this page on Rivals.com, it should be slowly engulfed in flames.
The bigger problem for Dooley – both last year, when the Vols were barely competitive against the top half of the SEC en route to a 6-6 finish, and going forward – is that the '09 class is only one of a progression of flops that leaves his team bereft of veteran talent, depth and leadership. The hyped, bust-filled 2007 crop already deserves to go down as one of the most underachieving classes in recent memory. The far less-hyped 2008 class hasn't fared much better in terms of producing reliable starters. And 2009, well, see above. As far as the young guns came over the last month of 2010, the hole they're climbing out of is still several miles deep.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.