Longtime ESPN analyst Mel Kiper believes the University of Tennessee will again be a prominent program in cranking out NFL draft picks.
It just may take some time.
Tennessee is the only Southeastern Conference member that will not have representatives at the NFL combine, which starts next Tuesday and runs through March 4 in Indianapolis. The SEC is scheduled to have 90 players overall, including 11 from Alabama, nine each from Georgia and Ole Miss and eight apiece from Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
"It's just a history of building it," Kiper said Tuesday afternoon on a conference call. "I think Jeremy Pruitt's recruiting class coming in this year is outstanding, so I think it will change. It's all tied to that, and with these recruits that are coming in, they are going to get Tennessee back to having a lot of picks.
"It may not be this year, and it could go another year. Right now, Tennessee does not have anyone who has that early-round or even that mid-round type of grade, but I think that will change in the not-too-distant future."
There are 338 overall invitees to this year's combine, but not all of them will be selected in late April. The 2018 NFL draft contained 256 picks.
Tennessee has long been synonymous with the NFL draft, with its 346 all-time selections ranking ninth among college programs. The Volunteers had at least one player drafted for 41 consecutive years from 1964 t0 2014, including a two-year stretch in 2002-03 when they produced 18 picks.
Should no Tennessee player be selected in April, it would be the third such occasion in the past five years.
The Vols did provide a healthy six players in the 2017 draft — defensive end Derek Barnett, running back Alvin Kamara, cornerback Cam Sutton, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, receiver Josh Malone and quarterback Josh Dobbs — and had three last spring: cornerback Rashaan Gaulden, running back John Kelly and defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie.
Tennessee still could get mentioned in this year's draft, because Colorado State receiver Preston Williams and Baylor University receiver Jalen Hurd began their college careers in Knoxville, Hurd as a running back.
"Preston Williams was there and then left and went to Colorado State, and he will probably be a second-round draft choice," Kiper said. "He had a phenomenal year at Colorado State, and I think he's the third- or fourth-best receiver in this draft.
"Yes, he's from Colorado State, but he was at Tennessee for a two-year period."
Williams was a top-50 national prospect in the 2015 signing class and caught seven passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman. He had five catches in the 2016 opener against Appalachian State but only four receptions in the next five games and announced his departure in October.
After sitting out the 2017 season at CSU, Williams racked up 96 receptions for 1,345 yards and 14 touchdowns this past season.
Hurd was a top-50 prospect in the 2014 class and rushed for 1,285 yards as a sophomore in 2015. He also left during the 2016 season and sat out 2017, and his one season with the Bears yielded 69 catches for 946 yards and four scores.
CBS earlier this month ranked Williams the No. 17 receiver and Hurd the No. 31 receiver in this year's draft.
The lack of a Tennessee draft impact is occurring the same year the three-day extravaganza is being hosted for the first time in Nashville. Kiper said Tuesday that this will be his 36th draft with ESPN.
"We're looking forward to being down there," he said. "It's a great area to get to even if you get a chance to take a vacation without having to work it. It should be fun, and I think everybody is looking forward to going to Nashville. When it was announced, I know that everybody wanted to go.
"The Titans are picking at No. 19, and there will be a lot of interest in them as they try to get back to where they want to be."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.