The growing speculation about the futures of Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley and Kentucky's Joker Phillips is leaving area high school prospects being recruited by those programs more questions to consider as they weigh their options.
Rumors continue to swirl that Dooley's future rests on how the Volunteers fare at South Carolina on Saturday, while Phillips' coaching fate seems to be sealed already with a 1-7 record this season.
While Bradley Central offensive lineman Austin Sanders was UT's first commitment of the 2013 signing class and Signal Mountain quarterback Reese Phillips has been committed to Kentucky for several months, Ridgeland free safety Vonn Bell is the crown jewel of uncommitted players in the Chattanooga area. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Bell, who is rated the nation's No. 3 safety prospect by Scout.com, has narrowed his list of schools to Alabama, Ohio State and Tennessee and admitted he is keeping a close eye on what happens in Knoxville.
"My parents and I are pretty straightforward with the coaches we're dealing with," said Bell, who hasn't taken any official visits and said he likely will wait until after the season to do so. "We'll just ask any coach if he's going to have the job or not by the time I get there. I mean, it's my future, too, and you want to know who you're going to play for. It's a big deal because it can affect your future, how soon you play and your future beyond college -- who's going to help you reach your goal.
"Right now, I just try to put all the rumors aside and I'll do what's best for me and my future. You hear things, but I really don't keep up with all the rumors. I would rather ask the coaches themselves and then just wait and see what all happens from here."
Earlier this week The Sporting News had Dooley No. 1 and Phillips No. 2 on its list of college football coaches on hot seats, putting both under the headline, "It's all over but the firing."
But whether Dooley returns to coach the Vols for a fourth season, Sanders said he will honor his commitment and sign with them in February. The 6-6, 300-pound Sanders grew up going to UT games with his dad and hasn't even considered any of the numerous other offers he has from the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame, Southern California, UCLA, Mississippi State and Kentucky, among others. He has told Bradley coach Damon Floyd to make it clear he isn't interested in visiting or even talking with other coaches.
"I hear all the rumors about Coach Dooley on Twitter, Facebook or just the Internet," said Sanders, who has attended every UT home game this season. "Right now it's just a lot of unhappy fans talking, and I understand why they're upset. I wouldn't say it's unfair, but I don't like when people do that. It takes time to rebuild a program. If you get rid of one coach and bring in another, we would be starting from scratch all over again. Coach Dooley is doing a good job and he just needs time to keep building it. He's further along than a new coach would be in the process.
"No matter who the coach is, I'll be at Tennessee next year. I haven't asked or said anything about the rumors to the coaches when I'm up there, but I can tell they're real nervous about what's going on up there."
Sanders will become the first Chattanooga-area player to sign with UT since the trio of Ooltewah's Jacques Smith and Calhoun's Da'Rick Rogers and Nash Nance in 2010. Besides Sanders, Howard's 6-8, 280-pound two-way lineman Brandon Walters is being recruited by UT and attended the Alabama game with his family last weekend for an unofficial visit.
Signal Mountain's Phillips said he will remain committed to Kentucky, regardless of who the next coach is, provided the offense remains a good fit for his style. A prototypical dropback passer, Phillips (6-3, 220) remains in weekly contact with Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, who has been in charge of his recruitment.
"I would love to play for Coach Phillips, but it's the SEC so we'll see how it goes. I'd stay regardless of if there's a coaching change so long as the offense isn't something that I'm not suited for," said Phillips, who plans to take his official visit to UK in two weeks and is graduating in December so he can enroll early.
"With me planning to enroll early, I'm curious to see what happens pretty soon, so I'll know if I'm going to have to go through the recruiting process again. Right now I'm just keeping my ears open."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...