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Another day, another downer.

Is there any other way to look at the current state of Tennessee football?

Just when you thought Rocky Top's near future had hit rock bottom with Saturday's news that former top recruit Dylan Brooks was taking his supposedly considerable linebacking talents to Auburn after being released on Friday from the National Letter of Intent he'd signed with UT in December, yet another one bit the dust on Sunday.

As reported by this newspaper's David Paschall and others, mammoth offensive lineman J'Marion Gooch, all six feet seven inches and 358 pounds of him, was also given his unconditional release from Volsville.

Though not as highly ranked as the Top 100 player Brooks, Gooch was regarded as the 51st best tackle prospect in the country by 247Sports composite ranking and the 628th best prospect overall.

What makes Gooch's release even worse is that unlike Brooks — who grew in Roanoke, Alabama — he hailed from Gallatin, Tennessee.

When even your in-state prospects are turning on you — and Gooch had previously reversed a verbal pledge to Auburn to sign with the Vols — you know that nothing in your program is trending in the right direction.

The question on the minds of Big Orange fans everywhere must now focus on whether this unwanted exodus is tied to the firing of Jeremy Pruitt over alleged NCAA violations, the hiring of former Central Florida coach Josh Heupel to replace Pruitt, the rumors swirling about the severity of those violations, or all three.

Gut feeling: These are much more about Pruitt's ouster and fear that the severity of those violations could crush Vols football for at least the next two seasons.

The more cynical among us will no doubt shout that those leaving the program through either the school's willingness to grant the signees their unconditional release or through the transfer portal for the veterans is due to no longer being able to profit from whatever illegal deals were allegedly made to lure them to Knoxville.

And there is surely at least a grain of truth to that on some level for at least a few of those players. But that's not all bad. If you're Heupel, best to rid yourself of any potential bad apples now. Find the players you can trust, the ones who signed on for the right reasons and you'll overcome the potentially dark days ahead with far fewer headaches and perhaps at least a few more victories.

But that doesn't mean everyone who's abandoned ship, or even anywhere close to half of them, initially arrived at UT under less than honorable intentions.

The reality is that most kids want to win. Now. The more the better. They also want to play. Now. The more the better.

Until Heupel and his staff can prove that they can ring up similar offensive numbers to those 43 points a game his Central Florida teams did, both getting and keeping Southeastern Conference-level talent could prove difficult.

The biggest key to putting this latest frustrating moment in UT football in the past is getting to the bottom of the NCAA investigation as soon as possible, which often seems a pipe dream when dealing with college athletics' governing body, especially its enforcement wing.

President Biden may be running for his second term in office by the time sanctions are handed down, assuming at least some penalty awaits UT. Then again, since the Vols' brass initiated the investigation and quickly alerted the NCAA to its preliminary findings, maybe this will all reach a conclusion quickly enough not to keep the football program in prolonged purgatory.

But given all the talent that's already moved on — running back Eric Gray, linebacker Henry To'o To'o, linebacker Quavaris Crouch, lineman Jahmir Johnson, lineman Wanya Morris, defensive back Key Lawrence and kicker Brent Cimaglia, to name but seven — it's hard to see any way for Tennessee to win more than four to five games a year over the next two seasons at the very least.

Not exactly the recruiting pitch Heupel needs to attract the best and the brightest wanting to compete for championships from the get-go, is it?

Maybe all this was necessary. Maybe the violations are bad enough that the only way to save the football program in the longterm was to all but destroy it short-term. Maybe, also, Heupel is a miracle worker who can create an offense capable of eating up both enough yardage and clock to protect a suspect defense and steal a win or three between now and when things eventually return to normal.

But that's a lot of maybes for a program that will face a minimum of eight SEC opponents a year not given to sympathy for a brother who's in a world of hurt at the moment.

When Cimaglia penned his Twitter farewell to the Big Orange Nation last month — because nothing says you care like Twitter — he wrote, in part: "I have made lifelong friends and will cherish these memories forever. With that being said, it is time for me to move forward in the best interest of me and my family ...

Signing out, #42"

As these exits continue, the last one signing out can turn out the lights on Tennessee football remaining competitive for the foreseeable future.

The party, lame though it's been the past decade, is over. Nor is the cleanup likely to be pretty or quick.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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