KNOXVILLE — They enter with the highest billing and generate the greatest excitement and anticipation.
For Tennessee's football program, though, five-star recruits have been more frustrating than fulfilling.
There have been more misses than hits for the top-level recruits the Volunteers have landed, and lately they have been unable to sign the nation's elite prospects.
In its last 13 signing classes dating back to 2002, when Rivals.com began its rankings, Tennessee signed 20 five-star recruits, and 15 of them came during the first five years of that stretch under former coach Phillip Fulmer.
In the last six classes before current coach Butch Jones landed tailback Jalen Hurd and receiver Josh Malone, the crown jewels of Tennessee's highly ranked 2014 class, the Vols landed just three five-star players: tailback Bryce Brown and safety Janzen Jackson in 2009 and receiver Da'Rick Rogers in 2010.
None of that ballyhooed trio made it to junior seasons with the Vols.
A LOOK AT THE LIST:
JAMES BANKS (2002) -- The Indianapolis star shone his first two seasons before a knee injury and off-field trouble derailed a promising career. Filling in for injured quarterback Casey Clausen in 2002, Banks nearly orchestrated an upset of eventual SEC champion Georgia in Athens, and he started a win at Mississippi State later that season. He switched to receiver and flourished in 2003 with a team-leading 42 catches for 621 yards and a memorable winning touchdown catch in overtime against South Carolina. Banks missed the 2004 season following knee surgery and was dismissed that December.
MONDRE DICKERSON (2002) -- The defensive tackle out of Memphis Melrose High School signed with the Vols out of Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. Dickerson played in 12 games with two starts in 2002 and was Tennessee's leading tackler among defensive linemen when he was suspended in November 2003 on the day he was accused of rape, though the case was never prosecuted. He was indicted on another rape charge a year later and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in August 2005.
BRANDON JEFFERIES (2002) -- A touted offensive lineman from North Carolina, Jeffries redshirted in 2002 and left Tennessee after the 2003 season after playing in just one game. He wound up at Division II Newberry College.
J.T. MAPU (2002) -- The defensive lineman from Hawaii had a solid career that was interrupted by a two-year Mormon church mission in Texas and Louisiana. After recording just nine tackles in 12 games in 2002, Mapu started 10 games in 2003. Upon returning from his mission, Mapu played in all 27 games and finished with 30 tackles in 2006 and 2007. In 51 career games, Mapu had 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
GERALD RIGGS JR. (2002) -- The Red Bank High School star had a solid career with the Vols. Riggs had just 256 rushing yards and one touchdown his first two seasons, but he rolled up 1,107 yards and six scores on 193 carries -- including a 182-yard performance in the 2004 SEC championship game loss to Auburn -- in a platoon with Cedric Houston in 2004. He was on pace for another 1,000-yard season in 2005 when he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the loss at Alabama. He was part of a Grey Cup-winning Toronto Argonauts squad in 2012 during his third stint with the CFL franchise.
ROBERT MEACHEM (2003) -- Tennessee plucked Meachem out of Oklahoma, but the Vols had to wait a couple of seasons for the payoff. A knee injury forced him to redshirt in 2003, and he caught just 54 passes for 842 yards and six touchdowns in 2004 and 2005. Meachem erupted in 2006 as part of a productive trio with Bret Smith and Jayson Swain, catching 71 passes for a single-season Tennessee-record 1,265 yards and 11 scores, and left for the NFL. The New Orleans Saints took him with the 27th pick in the 2007 draft, and he was part of the Saints' 2009 Super Bowl team. Meachem was back with the Saints in 2013 after a one-year stint with San Diego.
ALBERT TOEAINA (2004) -- The junior college offensive lineman started 18 consecutive games at right tackle for the Vols in 2004 and 2005, though he was suspended for the 2005 season finale after allegedly spitting on a cameraman after Tennessee lost to Vanderbilt. He had offseason stints with Carolina and Oakland prior to stints in the CFL and USFL.
JESSE MAHELONA (2004) -- The junior college defensive tackle had an excellent debut season for Tennessee in 2004. He earned All-SEC honors after leading the league with 18.5 tackles for loss and was drafted in the fifth round of the 2006 NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans following a 77-tackle, 7-sack career. He played in 10 games as a rookie before stints in Miami, Atlanta and Jacksonville. Mahelona was killed in a car accident in his native Hawaii in 2009 at the age of 26.
DEMETRICE MORLEY (2005) -- The safety out of Miami had a wild Tennessee career. After playing in 11 games as a freshman, Morley started 10 games in 2006, made 51 tackles and took an interception back for a score against LSU. He paid his own way at Pellissippi State Technical Junior College in Knoxville to get his academics on track in 2007. He was reinstated to the Vols in 2008 and had 42 stops that season. After an arrest and three missed spring practices, Morley was dismissed for good the following April by first-year coach Lane Kiffin.
WALTER FISHER (2006) -- A state champion and Mr. Football with Nashville's Hillsboro High School in 2003, the defensive lineman signed with Tennessee after two seasons at Coffeyville CC. He didn't make his first Tennessee start until 2008 and finished a quiet career with 55 tackles, six for loss and two sacks in 33 games over three years.
ERIC BERRY (2007) -- The son of former Vol James Berry was Tennessee's last true superstar, at least until Cordarrelle Patterson's dazzling one-year cameo in 2012. Berry started his first game at Tennessee and returned a Tim Tebow pass for a touchdown in his third game. He was a consensus Freshman All-SEC and Freshman All-America selection in 2007, earned unanimous All-America honors in 2008 and 2009 and won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back in 2009. Berry piled up 245 tackles, 14 interceptions and three pick-sixes in his three-year career. The fifth overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, Berry is a three-time Pro Bowl safety for the Kansas City Chiefs and earned his first All-Pro selection in 2013.
CHRIS DONALD (2007) -- Ranked as the state's top player out of Huntingdon High School in West Tennessee, Donald appeared in nine games in 2008 and 2009 following a redshirt season and transferred to UT-Chattanooga in January 2010. In his only season with the Mocs, Donald led the team with 7.5 sacks and earned All-Southern Conference honors before giving up football due to recurring wrist problems.
BEN MARTIN (2007) -- Tennessee raided Cincinnati to land Martin, but a preseason knee injury delayed the defensive end's debut in 2007 and set the tone for his career. He didn't start his first two seasons, missed the 2010 season with an Achilles' tendon injury and returned to play in every game in 2011 after suffering an Achilles' injury on his other foot earlier that offseason. Martin finished his career with 19 starts, 81 tackles, eight for loss and six sacks in 45 career games.
KENNY O'NEAL (2007) -- The Vols landed the former Florida State receiver after he spent a year in junior college, but he failed to live up to his recruiting rating. The numbers from O'Neal's 2007 season: two catches for 59 yards and one touchdown, two rushes for 4 yards. He was declared academically ineligible for the Outback Bowl that season and sat out spring practice in 2008 to focus on academics before ultimately transferring.
BRENT VINSON (2007) -- The Hargrave Military Academy product started 10 games at cornerback in 2007, but he made just 24 tackles and two interceptions the following two seasons. In 2009, he was interviewed by Knoxville police as a witness in an off-campus shooting involving former Tennessee basketball player Ramar Smith and later was arrested for tampering with evidence and attempting to tamper with evidence, though those charges were later dropped. Academic and drug issues precluded his departure ahead of the 2009 Chick-fil-A Bowl, and Vinson played his senior year at North Alabama in 2010.
BRYCE BROWN (2009) -- The nation's top overall recruit completed Kiffin's only class a couple of weeks after signing day, and a dramatic recruitment turned into a dramatic career. Brown ran for 460 yards and three touchdowns on 101 carries behind Montario Hardesty as a freshman in 2009. He announced he was transferring the following spring, but first-year coach Derek Dooley declined to release him from his scholarship, and the fallout nearly brought on a lawsuit. He landed closer to home at Kansas State, rarely played after sitting out a season, and ended up going in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL draft to the Philadelphia Eagles. He's had three 100-yard games as LeSean McCoy's backup the past two seasons.
JANZEN JACKSON (2009) -- "It's been a long drama." That's what Dooley said when he dismissed Jackson a week before the 2011 season opener. In two seasons, Jackson, the Louisiana native who flipped from a long-time commitment to LSU to sign with Kiffin and the Vols the day after signing day in 2009, started 21 games and finished with 106 tackles and six interceptions. After his sophomore season, Jackson withdrew from school yet worked an on-campus job for a five-month stretch that offseason.
DA'RICK ROGERS (2010) -- The Calhoun (Ga.) High School star and longtime Georgia commitment signed with Tennessee and had a roller-coaster Vols career. Rogers was involved in the infamous Bar Knoxville brawl in 2010 and suspended twice in 2012. In 2011, Rogers earned All-SEC honors with a 67-catch, 1,040-yard, nine-touchdown season. A week before the Vols were set to unleash Rogers, Patterson and Justin Hunter on the SEC, Rogers was booted from Tennessee for multiple failed drug tests and landed at Tennessee Tech. The Buffalo Bills signed him to a free-agent deal after he went undrafted, and he wound up with Indianapolis and caught two touchdowns in five late-season games for the Colts.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...