Remember 2007? That was the year that Tennessee - despite losing to Florida and Alabama - made the SEC championship game and nearly pulled off the upset against eventual national champion LSU. That was also the recruiting class that Rivals ranked as #3 in the nation. Say what you may about the validity of recruiting rankings, but that was undeniably one of the most talent-laden classes the Vols had ever seen. With 32 commits, half of whom were of the 4- and 5-star variety, even the fact that a few were sign-and-place types wasn't much of a damper on the potential of the class. It was supposed to be the kind of roster rebuild that would recover the Vols from the 2005 debacle and bring about the real "Future" of the program.
Remember 2007? If you do, take a look at our current seniors on the roster and compare to the class as ranked by Rivals.
||Part of Class of 2007 Ranking?|
* These six players were a part of the 2007 class, but are juniors in terms of football eligiblity.
** Brent Slusher was a part of Auburn's 2006 class and earned one letter with the Tigers prior to transferring.
Out of the entire roster (including juniors who redshirted a year), we're down to 18 seniors total. Of those 18, eleven were a part of that 2007 class; the rest were transfers or redshirts from the 2006 class. Of those eleven players, only eight have played enough to earn at least one letter. While that is not to say that the 2007 class was a waste (I highly doubt that any Vols fan would trade Frazier, Jones, Martin, Moore or Walker), the reality is that the 2007 class has effectively disappeared from the roster.
The 2007 class is a story that cannot simply be confined to a before/after list of players, however. For one, there was Eric Berry, who will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the brightest stars in Tennessee history, and that at a position that is not known for producing legends. The remaining five who earned three letters to date are also five tremendous contributors to the program and will at least get a look from the NFL.
It's also a class that has seen turmoil and transition to a degree that almost no college football program has ever seen. With three head coaches, four offensive coordinators, and three defensive coordinators during their watch, the 2007 class never once had a chance to just show up and play football. Add to that the pressure of a fanbase that places their entire identity on the welfare of the football program, and it's a wonder we even have the so many remaining players.
But this kind of roster decimation also gives us a glimpse into what happened on the field against the Oregon Ducks on Saturday night. Think for a second of the normal progression of a college football player: they come in their freshman year and spend most of their time adjusting to the change in lifestyle, the increase in the brightness of the spotlight, the vastly increased level of competition, learning new schemes, and refining their skills and physical maturity. Some might even redshirt during this transition. Over the sophomore year, they get worked into a vital part of the two-deep rotation and begin to apply themselves on the field in a much more meaningful way. That leaves them their junior and senior seasons to be full contributors on the field and mentors off the field.
Now think about the seniors on our roster. During the last two years, when they should have become the experts and sages of the team, they were right alongside the new players, learning new schemes and rediscovering their roles. Add a sprinkle of the Kiffin Freshman Early Entry ProgramTM, and you have an already-depleted veteran roster that has never really been developed into the leaders they're supposed to be.
At this stage, there's no sense in holding this against the 2007 remainders; they weren't a part of the reason for their stunted development, after all. But as the phrase goes for this year, it is what it is. And this team is a team devoid of the natural roster hierarchy that has defined so many national- and conference-championship winners over the course of the decade.
No wonder the team didn't have the constitution to handle the adversity of Oregon's quick scores at halftime and into the third quarter: the very people who should be able to point to the past and be confident in the system were themselves wondering how the team could respond. On the sideline, the players' heads were filled with doubts; as they looked from one helmet to another, all eyes were asking questions and none had answers. When the emotions that carried the team in the first half dissolved, there was nothing within the players to draw upon.
Still, A Hand of Applause
Despite the troubles on the field Saturday night, the disappearing act we have seen from the 2007 class is all the more reason to applaud the efforts of those who remain. While many seniors in other programs are enjoying the fruits of a four-year reign as a demigod on campus, ours have done well simply to stick to their commitment and see our program through one of its most turbulent and acidic times in history. In all honesty, these players of the 2007 class may have give the program their greatest contribution off the field, out of the view of cameras, statisticians, and scouts, where merely holding the team together and allowing the coaches to put a product - any product - on the field should be viewed as a major victory.
Yes, I'm a natural optimist, but in the final run for so many of Tennessee's most beleaguered class, this year should provide them with nothing but appreciation and applause for their efforts. It may not have been on the field as expected, but they really have 'given their all' for the program.