On Feb. 4, 2009, Lane Kiffin stepped to the podium and addressed what would be his only signing class as University of Tennessee football coach.
“Understand that this class is far below the standards that we have here and what we’ll need here in the future,” Kiffin said.
Who knew then just how precise he would be?
Kiffin and his staff of relentless recruiters had two months to scramble and assemble a class, and they were praised for compiling a crop that was strengthened with the late additions of safety Janzen Jackson, all-purpose back David Oku and tailback Bryce Brown, the nation’s No. 1 prospect. Rivals.com ranked Tennessee’s 23 signees 10th in the country, but only eight from that class are still with the program following a string of arrests and academic shortcomings.
Last summer, Rivals.com ranked Tennessee’s ’09 class as the most disappointing nationally in the past decade.
“I don’t care who you are or where you are, you cannot have a class like that,” longtime recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg said. “You can’t have a bunch of kids to where a year or two later most are gone. Your roster is going to be depleted, and that’s exactly one of the big reasons why Tennessee is in this situation right now.”
The Volunteers are 18-20 the past three years and went 5-7 this past season, losing seven league games for the first time in program history and finishing last in the SEC East for the first time as well.
Ed Orgeron, Lance Thompson and Eddie Gran were the heralded recruiters three years ago who helped Kiffin land five players in Rivals.com’s top 100 — Brown, Jackson (No. 17), receiver Nu’Keese Richardson (No. 68), linebacker Jerod Askew (No. 79) and Oku (No. 97). None of those five lasted more than two years with the Vols, with Brown transferring to Kansas State before his sophomore season and Jackson to McNeese State before his junior season.
Brown left Kansas State’s program last October after rushing three times for 16 yards and hasn’t spoken to the media since August. He and Jackson are bypassing the rest of their collegiate eligibility and have declared for April’s NFL draft.
There were 11 players remaining at UT from the ’09 class at the start of this month, but Vols third-year coach Derek Dooley recently announced the dismissals of defensive tackle Arthur Jeffery and linebacker Robert Nelson. Dooley also said guard JerQuari Schofield is not on the team for academic reasons but is still in school.
The only active member of Tennessee’s ’09 signing class with more than 10 career starts is cornerback Marsalis Teague, who has 16.
Before Tennessee’s additions of Jackson, Oku and Brown in ’09, the Vols were reveling in the signings of Richardson and Teague.
Those two had been committed to Florida, and snatching players from the Gators meant taking from the very best. Less than a month before that signing day, Florida won its second BCS title in three seasons under coach Urban Meyer.
“You can already see where we’re going to be very powerful in the state of Florida recruiting,” Orgeron boasted on signing day. “In order to beat the national champs on the field, you have to beat the national champs in recruiting, and we beat them twice.”
Kiffin wrongly accused Meyer of cheating during the recruitment of Richardson and was quickly reprimanded by SEC commissioner Mike Slive, but that hardly put a dent in Tennessee’s new momentum. The Vols had rebounded from their subpar 2008 class in Phillip Fulmer’s final year, a group that was headed by E.J. Abrams-Ward and the late Aaron Douglas and was rated 35th — unheard of by Tennessee standards — by Rivals.com.
Snagging Jackson gave the Vols another superstar safety alongside Eric Berry, and then there was the biggest catch of all, even to his fellow signees.
“I show up to a spring practice, and there is Bryce Brown, the No. 1 recruit in the country,” said Kevin Revis, the former Rhea County lineman who signed with the Vols in ’09 and transferred last year to UT-Chattanooga. “It was just a crazy time. You didn’t know who they were going to bring in.”
Kiffin’s one autumn in Knoxville yielded a 7-6 record, and there were notable moments compiled by the ’09 signees.
Brown rushed for 104 yards in the opening rout of Western Kentucky and finished with 460 yards as Montario Hardesty’s backup. Teague had two touchdown receptions and Richardson one, while Oku set the program’s single-season mark for kickoff returns (33) and kickoff-return yardage (863). Jackson amassed 37 tackles and an interception, and Greg King had 24 tackles and a pick.
But there would be far more lows than highs.
Tennessee’s ’09 class suffered its first setback when James Green, a promising receiver from Tallahassee, couldn’t get through the NCAA clearinghouse.
Then came the early morning hours of Nov. 12, when Jackson, Richardson and Mike Edwards were charged with attempted armed robbery at a Pilot convenience store on Cumberland Avenue. Richardson approached the driver’s side of a parked car wearing a hooded sweatshirt and holding an air-powered pellet pistol, and he instructed the people inside to “Give me everything you have.”
Edwards, approaching from the passenger side wearing a hooded sweatshirt, said, “Do what he says.”
Richardson and Edwards were dismissed from the program, and Jackson was suspended for two games. Charges against Jackson eventually were dismissed, but Richardson pleaded guilty to attempted armed robbery and Edwards pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of reckless endangerment.
Kiffin bolted to Southern Cal three weeks before signing day in 2010, and the exodus of ’09 signees continued. Dooley announced on the first day of the 2010 spring practice that Brown had left the program for personal reasons, and safety Darren Myles was dismissed that July after being arrested on charges of assaulting a police officer and resisting and evading arrest following a Knoxville bar fight.
It was the second arrest for Myles in a three-month span.
“That’s why it really pays to rank these classes three, four or five years down the road,” Newberg said. “At the time Tennessee’s class looked awesome, especially the way they got some of those kids late in the game.”
Tennessee’s ’09 crop was not without concerns even before the defections. The Vols did not sign a quarterback that year, and Revis, Schofield and Daniel Hood were the only offensive linemen.
That left Tennessee inexperienced in each area during Dooley’s first season, when the Vols went 6-7.
Revis considers himself among the fortunate after transferring to the Mocs and starting 10 games this past season at right guard. He admits his one year with Kiffin, who has the Trojans poised to make a run at the 2012 BCS title, was entertaining but much prefers the stability of coach Russ Huesman’s program.
As for being a part of the most disappointing signing class of the past decade? Well, that’s just something he and 22 others will have to live with.
“No matter where you go, there is going to be some attrition, and I guess they had to get that class together so quickly,” Revis said. “I roomed with Naz Oliver and Arthur Jeffery and JerQuari Schofield, and I still talk to them all the time. People went their separate ways, but I still keep in touch with a lot of the guys.”
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...