If a three year recruiting failure from 2007-09 was one of the primary culprits in Tennessee's downfall, what are we seeing on the back end of that cycle? We know none of the high profile names from the vaunted Kiffin class are on the board where Vol seniors should be in this draft; Dallas Thomas could get picked tonight as the final Phillip Fulmer recruit in the NFL Draft, and the rest of the talent going forward will belong to the 2010 Kiffin/Dooley class, minus juco transfer Cordarrelle Patterson, picked in the first round by the Vikings last night.
This time last year we promised it would be the last time you wouldn't care about the NFL Draft. In the 2011-12 NFL Drafts the Vols went without a pick in the first two rounds for consecutive years for the first time since 1974-75, and had four or fewer players taken in a two year span for the first time since 1962-63. That's a talent issue, and we saw it on display in 2010 and 2011 on the field to be sure.
You can evaluate coaches and teams on recruiting rankings on the front end to be sure, but the NFL Draft is the back end of talent evaluation. Sometimes they get it right (Peyton Manning) and sometimes they get it wrong (Arian Foster), but the number of players your team had drafted is as good an indication as any for your overall talent level as a program.
This year the Vols will send at least four to the pros (Patterson, Hunter, Bray, Thomas), perhaps five with Mychal Rivera, plus Da'Rick Rogers from Cookeville. If a sleeper like Zach Rogers gets in there as well, we'll have seven former Vols taken in the NFL Draft for the first time since...wait for it...2003, when eight were drafted.
It's still not that hard to see why Tennessee struggled so much last year - all seven of those names play on offense - but on the whole, are we past the talent gap?
This tme next year you're bound to see a whole heap of linemen walking across that stage from Knoxville. They too will be a tribute to the Dooley/Kiffin class of 2010, plus Tiny Richardson from 2011 if he goes early as he almost certainly will. And Dooley does deserve credit for closing so unbelievably well in 2010 and landing Tiny and CP.
But beyond that? Are we in for another significant talent drop?
Butch Jones is working hard to make sure that isn't the case right now, as the Vols currently boast a Top 5 projected class for 2014. But looking ahead to a time when we might look back, the issues Jones will face on the field in his first two years may also be attributed to recruiting failures (and general failures) on Dooley's part during his last two years.
Dooley signed the 13th best class according to Rivals in 2011, including a dozen four star players. Of that group we've already lost DeAnthony Arnett, Izauea Lanier, Cameron Clear, Pat Martin, and Marlin Lane is not currently with the team. Tiny Richardson is a stud and A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt should eventually go in that group as well. But most of what Tennessee will put on the field this season as its non-OL upperclassman leadership will come from three star players from that class (Brian Randolph, Vincent Dallas, Brendan Downs, Justin Worley, Devrin Young).
The 2012 class is still young and far from a full evaluation. But of its eleven four star prospects, we've already lost Cordarrelle Patterson, Deion Bonner, Dante Phillips, and Davante Borque. A host of others redshirted and we haven't seen what they have yet.
All of that to say, the Vols will be well represented on draft day this weekend, which will again make you scratch your head and wonder how this team went 5-7. Again, I doubt you'll see any defensive players on the board, and again, I think we'd all agree our long-term prospects are in better hands with Butch Jones than Derek Dooley had the Vols finished 8-4ish last year anyway. Next year Tennessee will send a slew of linemen to the draft. And Butch is recruiting in such a way to suggest the Vols should be in business in the NFL Draft deep in the future.
But for the present on fall Saturdays the next two years, Tennessee needs the talent that stayed to step up. Under Phillip Fulmer Tennessee averaged six players selected per draft. Averaged. So while we celebrate with each individual member of the 2013 draft class and wish them all success (give or take your feelings on Da'Rick), we also know a time has to come when having six players drafted is no longer cause for unusual celebration or questions as to how this team couldn't win. Weekends like this must become the standard again, and they must come on the heels of the successful seasons that should naturally follow this much talent hearing their name called.
The good news is, the guy in charge now had a hand in putting the first name on the board this year, even from Central Michigan. We're in better hands now, in hopes of better days ahead.