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Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel, shown here smiling after last November's 45-42 win at Kentucky, currently has the nation's No. 13 recruiting class that is highlighted by five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava.

The Tennessee Volunteers didn't land a single top-100 national football prospect in their 2021 or 2022 signing classes.

So far in this 2023 recruiting cycle, the Vols have snagged five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava, lost out to Ohio State for five-star receiver Carnell Tate, and are finalists for five-star offensive tackle Francis Mauigoa from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and five-star edge rusher Chandarian Bradley from Platte City, Missouri.

What has Tennessee competing for the country's elite talent as if Phillip Fulmer was back at the helm?

Is it the success and the excitement of Josh Heupel's first season that has led to optimism for this autumn and beyond? Is it a Tennessee tradition that includes 13 Southeastern Conference championships and the picturesque setting of Neyland Stadium overlooking the Tennessee River? Or could it be that the Vols have been competitive out of the gate in college football's new world of name, image and likeness (NIL) deals?

"I'm sure NIL considerations are playing a role in this to some degree, but I would not take away from what Tennessee has done to capitalize on its opportunities from what it's done on the field," Ryan Callahan, a recruiting analyst for 247Sports.com, said this week. "NIL has been a game-changer for college football recruiting. There was a report of five-star quarterback Jaden Rashada getting in the range of a $9.5 million deal to go to Miami.

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Photo courtesy of 247Sports.com / Five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava is Tennessee's third highest-rated commitment of the last quarter century, according to 247Sports, trailing only running back Bryce Brown (2009) and cornerback Eric Berry (2007).

"There is a lot of money being thrown around out there, but I do think some of it is being exaggerated quite a bit."

On July 1, 2021 — yep, it's one-year anniversary time — college athletes were allowed to earn revenue through name, image and likeness opportunities. Within a month of NIL being implemented, Alabama coach Nick Saban spoke to the Texas High School Coaches Association's annual convention and said, according to 247Sports, "Our quarterback has approached ungodly numbers, and he hasn't even played yet. If I told you what it is — it's almost seven figures."

Bryce Young had yet to make his first start for the Crimson Tide but wound up winning last season's Heisman Trophy, and Saban then became relatively low-key on the NIL topic until this past May, when he spoke in Birmingham and said that Texas A&M had "bought every player" in its top-rated signing class.

Tennessee made its own national headlines on March 21 by landing a commitment from Iamaleava, the 6-foot-5, 195-pounder from Long Beach, California, who is among the nation's top five overall players in the 2023 cycle. His nonbinding pledge transpired just days after The Athletic reported that a five-star recruit was being paid $8 million by an NIL collective to sign with a college program.

NIL collectives consist of supporters of universities who operate under state laws to fund revenue opportunities for athletes at their schools. Given the lack of parameters that has accompanied the start of the NIL era, the NCAA is trying to crack down on college boosters delving into high schools to secure future players.

Following Tate's commitment to Ohio State on June 20, the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch reported, "Much of the speculation about Tennessee's efforts centered on the program's aggressive approach to fostering name, image and likeness opportunities, a factor in securing a previous commitment in the cycle from Nico Iamaleava."

"I think Carnell Tate is a good example of someone who was considering NIL opportunities during his recruitment," Callahan said. "When it comes to making a decision, players are going where they want to go at the end of the day as long as they don't feel like they're passing up NIL opportunities that they might have elsewhere.

"As long as things are comparable between schools with the NIL stuff, most players are going where they feel they have the best opportunity to get to the NFL or whatever it is that's most important to them."

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Photo courtesy of 247Sports.com / Five-star receiver Carnell Tate of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, visited Tennessee and strongly considered the Vols before recently committing to national power Ohio State.

Heupel was asked by ESPN this week about NIL being a recruiting inducement for not only prep prospects but those in the transfer portal and if that was the original intent.

"How things are intended and how they functionally operate — that's the space we're in and trying to navigate," Heupel said. "There are always going to be unintended consequences. Recruiting has operated differently at different times, and this is the landscape that some schools are operating in. It's a paradigm shift, right?

"It's like any time there is a new landscape in business. It's different than it was a year ago at this time. I mean, drastically different."

Heupel's Vols were ranked 13th in the 247Sports team recruiting rankings as of Thursday evening and would seemingly be a lock for a top-10 contingent by landing Bradley and Mauigoa. Bradley has Tennessee, Texas A&M and South Carolina as his three finalists, while Mauigoa will decide Monday among Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Miami, Southern California and Hawaii.

Tennessee was ranked as high as No. 2 with nine months to go during the 2021 recruiting cycle, but that class imploded along with Jeremy Pruitt's three-win final season. That class wound up being ranked 22nd, while the class this past February was ranked 18th.

"I think this is as good of a spot that Tennessee has been in since going back to the Butch Jones era, when Tennessee signed back-to-back top-10 classes in 2014 and 2015," Callahan said. "I would equate this class to the 2014 class, though that one was more centered around a big in-state class — Jalen Hurd and Josh Malone and those guys.

"This year, the big in-state staple is (Murfreesboro Riverdale edge rusher) Caleb Herring, but the big difference which makes it hard to compare to any class in recent history is Nico Iamaleava at quarterback. He opens the door for a top-10 class on his own."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

ONE WHO GOT AWAY

While Tennessee is faring better this recruiting cycle both inside and outside of the Volunteer State, the Vols could not land Baylor School four-star offensive lineman Brycen Sanders, who recently committed to Ole Miss.

“Brycen Sanders is a good player who Tennessee definitely wanted and recruited really hard,” 247Sports.com recruiting analyst Ryan Callahan said. “Tennessee hosted him on a visit during the final weekend of May, but it was one of those recruitments where Tennessee was in the thick of it, but I don’t think there was ever that feeling that they were the team to beat. They always had a shot but were never comfortable with where things were.

“He clearly felt a comfort level at Ole Miss and liked that staff, but Tennessee still has an offensive line board with a lot of big names out there. It’s not a devastating loss on its own, but let’s see who else Tennessee gets on the offensive line. Tennessee needs a lot of tackle bodies, and Brycen Sanders projects more as a guard or a center.”

— David Paschall

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