Epps: Abilene tops Vols in NFL draft choices

Epps: Abilene tops Vols in NFL draft choices

April 28th, 2009 by Darren Epps in Sports - College

Abilene Christian University boasts a quality football program. The Wildcats averaged 52.3 points per game last season, scored 93 points in a playoff win and finished the season with one loss. It was a good year.

Still, Abilene Christian, a fine NCAA Division II school, should not be more represented in the NFL draft than the University of Tennessee. But it happened over the weekend, two Abilene Christian players selected to Tennessee's one, and now we're left to wonder what the draft means for the present and future of Volunteers football.

First, we must assess the past. The NFL draft is a fantastic barometer for the state of a program. Miami's once-dominant program is faltering. Not coincidentally, the Hurricanes' streak of 14 straight years with a first-round pick ended Saturday.

Alabama's streak of eight years without a first-round pick ended Saturday with Andre Smith (I imagine Rolando McClain is a future first-rounder), and as we know, the Crimson Tide are once again contenders to win the SEC every season.

"Usually," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said, "the talent you see in the NFL draft reflects the won-loss record."

And that is the one flaw in Phillip Fulmer you just cannot defend, and I'm a pro-Fulmer guy. Alabama coach Nick Saban likes to use the phrase "R and D" - recruit and develop. During the latter part of Fulmer's tenure, there was a lot of R and not enough D. Great signing classes seemed to evaporate by NFL draft time. The 2005 class, ranked fourth nationally by Rivals.com, has yet to produce a single NFL draft pick.

Since 2003, five Vols have been picked in the first round, one fewer than Arkansas and the same number as Ole Miss (LSU is first in the SEC with nine during that span). Yet Fulmer's signing classes consistently ranked among the nation's best. Clearly, a disconnect existed between the coaching staff and the players. And now that coaching staff is gone.

So what does this mean for the present? Well, once again, Tennessee's roster seems devoid of NFL talent. If you look at the top prospects entering the 2009 college football season - and, of course, players will rise and fall - you'll see Eric Berry and that's about it. Rico McCoy will likely earn a decent draft grade. Maybe Dan Williams and Josh McNeil. But it's unlikely the 2010 draft will be littered with Tennessee players in the top three rounds.

Also, there's this: The rising senior quarterback, Jonathan Crompton, could not beat out a junior with a fractured wrist during spring practice. That is probably not good. Expectations, especially with a new coaching staff, should be tempered in Tennessee's first season.

But we can take a glimpse toward Tennessee's future. And we can do that by looking at the Ole Miss players, the ones recruited by current Tennessee assistant Ed Orgeron, taken in the 2009 NFL draft.

Before Orgeron could sign and develop his players, tumbleweeds blew through the Ole Miss campus during draft day. One pick in 2006, a sixth-rounder. Two in 2007. Zero in 2008. Zero.

Ole Miss stars Michael Oher and Peria Jerry went back-to-back in the first round last Saturday. One of ESPN's commentators said, "That probably hasn't happened since...," and then there was silence. I think everyone had passed out. Receiver Mike Wallace went in the third round. It was the Rebels' best showing in the first three rounds since 2001.

You have to believe Orgeron can bring that kind of talent to Tennessee. You have to believe Abilene Christian isn't going to be busier than Tennessee on draft day much longer. But you can't produce a bunch of first- and second-rounders in one season on the job. The revival of Tennessee football is going to take time.