Once the backbone of a football program that during a 20-year stretch had 18 seasons of at least eight wins, recruiting is at the core of the Tennessee Volunteers' downward spiral of the past four years.
The origin can be traced back to February of 2006 when then-coach Phillip Fulmer followed a consensus No. 1-rated signing class with a group that included 17 players rated as merely two- or three-star prospects by Rivals. Of the four players given four or five stars in that class, only Chattanooga offensive lineman Jacques McClendon panned out; the other three either left the program or were dismissed without contributing significantly.
Perhaps more damaging than settling for players with fewer stars by their names has been the number of misfires UT has suffered on the highly rated prospects they did sign. Fulmer followed the dearth of talent in '06 with an '07 signing class that included five-star prospects such as Eric Berry, Chris Donald, Kenny O'Neal and Brent Vinson and was considered a consensus top-five group. However, only Berry lived up to the hype, and 16 players from that class did not finish their careers at UT.
The Vols signed a total of 32 players in 2007, but only eight ever started a game for them.
"Those were all really highly recruited guys, and would it have panned out better if I had stayed? I don't know the answer to that," Fulmer said this past week. "Certainly there has been a lot of transition, and Lennon Creer just played in an all-star game and was the leading rusher. Of course, Eric had a tremendous career, but sometimes they're all that they're cracked up to be and sometimes they're not."
The process of successfully evaluating talent that could both make significant on-field contributions and steer clear of off-field trouble began breaking down five years ago, and the result has been a 23-27 overall record and dismal 11-21 Southeastern Conference mark for the Vols.
Derek Dooley has had better success in his first two classes of locating players who not only will crack the starting lineup but will remain in the program long enough to turn around the trend that forced him to start 28 true freshmen the past two seasons. All but seven of the 25 four- or five-star players he has signed are either starters or getting significant playing time.
A look at the 4- and 5-star players signed by Tennessee since 2007
A total of 16 true freshmen played some last season. Only two who signed with UT last year are no longer with the program.
DeAnthony Arnett WR Saginaw, Mich 4 stars Transferred to Michigan State
Cameron Clear TE Memphis 4 stars Played in all 12 games, starting the final 2
Justin Coleman DB Brunswick, Ga. 4 stars Played in all 12 games, starting in 4
Maurice Couch DL Garden City, KS 4 stars Played in all 12 games, starting in 4
Marcus Jackson OL Vero Beach, Fla. 4 stars Played in all 12 games, starting in 5
A.J. Johnson LB Gainesville, Ga. 4 stars Played in 12 games, started 10; led SEC freshmen in tackles
Marlin Lane RB Daytona Beach, Fla. 4 stars Played in 12 games, had 620 all-purpose yards
Izauea Lanier DB Scooba, Miss. 4 stars Played in 12 games, starting in 9
Curt Maggitt LB West Palm Beach, Fla. 4 stars Played in 11 games, starting 8; had fourth-most tackles for a true freshman in UT history
Pat Martin DB Greenville, S.C. 4 stars Left in August, now enrolled at Arizona Western JC
Byron Moore DB Wilmington, Cal. 4 stars Played in 11 games, started 2
Antonio Richardson OL Nashville 4 stars Played in 12 games, mostly on special teams
Five of this class's 4-/5-star signees are no longer with the Vols, but that may be attributed to the fact that coach Derek Dooley had to piece together the group just weeks after taking over. Five others are solid starters.
Tyler Bray QB Kingsburg, Cal. 4 stars Began starting late in his freshman season
John Brown DT Lakeland, Fla. 4 stars Failed to qualify academically
Dave Clark DB Baton Rouge, La. 4 stars Failed to qualify academically
Justin Hunter WR Virginia Beach, Va. 4 stars Started 3 games last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury
Ja'Wuan James OL Suwanee, Ga. 4 stars Has started all 25 games of his career, all at right tackle.
Eddrick Loften DB Irving, Texas 4 stars Failed to qualify academically; arrested in November for vehicular burglary
Ted Meline WR Miami, Fla. 4 stars Transferred to North Dakota State College of Science before last season
Corey Miller DE Duncan, S.C. 4 stars Played in all 12 games but has yet to start; made 15 tackles in 2011
Matt Milton WR Mascoutah, Ill. 4 stars Transferred to Louisville earlier this month
Rajion Neal RB Tyrone, Ga. 4 stars Started in 3 of 11 games played last season, moved to receiver
Da'Rick Rogers WR Calhoun, Ga. 5 stars Voted All-SEC after leading the league in receptions and receiving yards
Jacques Smith DE Ooltewah 4 stars Started 8 games and made 8 tackles for loss
James Stone OL Nashville 4 stars Started 9 games last season; lost his starting C/LG job late in the season
The five signees who ranked in the Rivals' 100 overall prospects all were dismissed or left the team within two years. All but Jerod Askew were surprising, 11th-hour signees who had been committed to other programs before signing with UT. Of the eight 4- or 5-star players signed by coach Lane Kiffin, only defensive backs Marsalis Teague and Eric Gordon are still on the roster. Janzen Jackson was the only one of the class ever to make an All-SEC team (second team).
Phillip Fulmer's final signing class included 14 2- or 3-star signees.
E.J. Abrams-Ward Ath Thomasville, N.C. 4 stars Dismissed in January 2009 for disciplinary reasons
Aaron Douglas TE Maryville, Tenn. 4 stars Transferred out West, then to Alabama; died of a drug overdose last year
Demetrice Morley DB Miami, Fla. (Pellissippi CC) 5 stars Dismissed from the team twice, the final time for challenging former assistant Ed Orgeron
Marlon Walls LB Olive Branch, Miss. 4 stars Played in all 12 games last season, starting 4
Brandon Warren TE Alcoa, Tenn. 5 stars Dismissed after a heated sideline argument with assistant Frank Wilson in 2009
Gerald Williams DE Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. 4 stars Finished his career having played in 36 games with 5.5 sacks
Top 5 consensus class, rated No. 2 by Rivals, but nine of the 4-/5-star signees were gone within two years.
Eric Berry DB Fairburn, Ga. 5 stars Started every game of his UT career and became All-America
B.J. Coleman QB Chattanooga 4 stars Transferred to UTC
Lennon Creer RB Tatum, Texas 4 stars Transferred to Louisiana Tech
Chris Donald LB Huntingdon, Tenn. 5 stars Transferred to UTC
Gerald Jones WR Oklahoma City, Okla. 4 stars Led the team in catches 3 straight seasons
Donald Langley DT Germantown, Md. 4 stars Transferred to Texas Tech
Ben Martin DE Cincinnati, Ohio 5 stars A series of injuries limited his ability to contribute
Nevin McKenzie DB Athens, Texas 4 stars Converted to linebacker but got limited action
Rolando Melancon DT Lutcher, La. 4 stars Failed to qualify academically
Kenny O'Neal WR WR San Francisco CC 5 stars Dismissed for academic reasons
Ahmad Pige WR Sterlington, La. 4 stars Transferred to Louisiana Tech
Darris Sawtelle OL Birmingham, Mich. 4 stars Left the team after spring practice in 2009
Rae Sykes DL Alcoa, Tenn. 4 stars Played sparingly before being dismissed for academic reasons last spring
Brent Vinson WR Chatham, Va. 5 stars Dismissed from the team following the 2009 season
Chris Walker LB Memphis 4 stars Started 25 games, collecting 12 career sacks
DeAngelo Willingham DB Palm Desert, Calif., CC 4 stars Started 18 games, made 3 interceptions