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Tennessee Teams with the Most Recruiting Stars

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A look at the starting lineups for the last ten Tennessee squads based on composite recruiting ratings. How does Team 119 stack up?

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The last thing to fall in a brick-by-brick rebuild is the NFL Draft.  Michael covered Justin Coleman's surprising performance at the combine this week, which should allow Tennessee's streak of having a player drafted every year since 1963 to continue.  With seniors like Curt Maggitt, Von Pearson, and Brian Randolph, and potential early-entry candidates like Marquez North and Cameron Sutton, the combine shouldn't be so quiet from here on out.

When you're doing it right, it shows up last in April.  Last year, when we looked at the most overachieving Tennessee teams of the last 25 years, we found that the 1998 Vols had more starters drafted (19 including kicker/punter) than any Vol squad during that period.  It shows up first in February:  recruiting is always the first brick, and it's the cornerstone Butch Jones has been building on since his arrival in Knoxville.  Three of his classes have left us with lofty and familiar expectations for 2015.  This fall will mark eight years since Tennessee won ten games and the SEC East.  There have been a couple of times since then we've thought the Vols were "back" - we put too much stock in Kiffin's recruiting and Dooley's bamboo - but I was curious to see how the 2015 Vols lined up with those moments (especially 2012) and the last eight years as a whole.

This will change soon, but right now we only have recruiting stars to go on for much of what we hope we'll get in 2015.  But if you took that star power and compared it to the Vol teams of the past, just how well does this team shape up on paper?

I researched the recruiting rankings of every Tennessee starter for the last ten years.  That's as far back as composite ratings reliably go using 247 Sports, which is what I used for this story.  This isn't a story or an argument for or against recruiting rankings; there are far more qualified people on this site to do that.  This is also obviously not the final or most educated word on which teams were better or more talented than others; as you'll see and you know already, there's a huge difference between starting a bunch of four stars as freshmen and starting them as upperclassmen.  I'm just putting the numbers out there and making a few observations - as always, we invite you to do the same in the comments.

Here are the total number of stars for the starting 22 for each of the last ten Tennessee teams.  So, a 66 would be averaging a three star at every position, and an 88 would be averaging a four star at every position.  Consensus five stars are few and far between:  last year there were only 35 of them, and in 2002 there were only 39.

This also assumes a couple of things about the 2015 Vols:  the offensive line will start Dontavius Blair, Marcus Jackson, Mack Crowder, Jashon Robertson, and Kyler Kerbyson, Kahlil McKenzie will start at defensive tackle, and Justin Martin will start in the secondary.  Is it too early and too dangerous to assume who will start this fall?  Of course!  But here we go anyway...

MOST RECRUITING STARS IN THE STARTING LINEUP

  • 81:  2008, 2015
  • 79:  2012
  • 78:  2011, 2013
  • 75:  2007
  • 72:  2006, 2010, 2014
  • 71:  2009 (see note below on walk-ons)
So, on paper, Butch will put more talent on the field this fall than we've seen since 2008, and more than we saw in mostly successful seasons in 2006-07.

A couple of things to point out:
  • 2008 showing up is an instant red flag for putting too much faith in these ratings, or the 2015 team joining them at the top.
  • I didn't know how to handle unrated walk-ons; I gave them zero stars because, well, they got zero stars in the recruiting process.  This shows up in 2006 (DT Matt McGlothlin), 2009 (The Brothers Sullins on the offensive line), 2014 (Jacob Gilliam), and everywhere you find Nick Reveiz.  This explains much of the distance for the teams at the bottom of these rankings.   For 2009 in particular, you have the Sullins Bros. and Reveiz in the starting lineup.  If you were to instead assign all three of them a three-star rating, the 2009 team jumps to an 80 overall.
This gets even more interesting to me when you break it down into offense and defense.  Seven units in the last ten years have finished with 40+ stars:

40 Stars:  2007 Defense, 2011 Offense, 2015 Offense

Again, this is just the raw recruiting data.  The 2007 defense looks great on paper, but one of its five-stars never really played up to his potential (DT Demonte Bolden), and though the other was Eric Berry, he was joined by another true freshman in the secondary (four star Brent Vinson).  You'll recall the perils of starting so many newcomers, no matter how highly rated:  45 from Cal, 59 from Florida, 41 from Alabama.

The 2011 offense is the first of three units here really bolstered by the offensive line, which of course makes up nearly half of an offense's rating and nearly a quarter of the whole team's.  But it's hard for your five-star receiver to make a big impact when his four-star quarterback and four-star receiving counterpart are both injured for most of the season.

The best news about the 2015 offense is the ways it can still improve.  Ethan Wolf was a consensus three-star, but the only other three-stars in the projected starting lineup are offensive linemen.  If younger guys can beat out some of the veterans up front, the number will go up...but of course, they'll still be younger guys, and we saw the dangers of relying on that up front last fall.

41 Stars:  2012 Offense, 2015 Defense

Ja'Wuan James was a consensus five-star, and he was joined by six four-stars in the offensive group.  Obviously, the difference between good and great is often talent playing at or above its potential:  the three-stars among this group were Zach Rogers, Mychal Rivera, Zach Fulton, and Dallas Thomas.  Three of them are in the NFL right now.  The performance of the 2012 offense speaks for itself.

The 2015 defense is shaping up to be Tennessee's best in seven years, as you'll see.  McKenzie gives them the five-star presence, and like the 2012 offense he's joined by six four stars.  And like that offense, you've got three stars already playing at or above their potential in Cameron Sutton, Brian Randolph, and Corey Vereen.  The Vols will almost certainly start another consensus three-star in the secondary, whether that's Moseley, Foreman, or Gaulden.  If Kyle Phillips or Andrew Butcher beats out Vereen for the start, the Vols will start all four/five stars on the defensive line for the first time in the last ten years.

42 Stars:  2013 Offense

Witness the power of the offensive line:  in trading Dallas Thomas for Alex Bullard, this unit picks up an extra star in 2013 to give it a five star, three four-stars, and Zach Fulton.  Butch's first team also started four stars at every skill position and got some productivity from Rajion Neal and Pig Howard, but two of those four-stars were freshmen in Marquez North and redshirt freshman Jason Croom, certainly a step down from Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson.  And one of their few three-stars was, of course, the quarterback.  Justin Worley had his limitations, and the line itself probably wasn't a totally natural fit for Butch/Bajakian's offense.

44 Stars:  2008 Defense

Behold the power of three five-stars:  Eric Berry, Demetrice Morley, and Demonte Bolden.  Bolden didn't fully pan out, but his defensive tackle counterpart was Dan Williams, just a three-star but an eventual first round draft pick.  Meanwhile you've got productive four stars in Robert Ayers, Rico McCoy, and Wes Brown, plus DeAngelo Willingham and Nevin McKenzie.  John Chavis' last Knoxville unit finished third nationally in yards per play allowed.

This brings me to perhaps the most important good news about the 2015 Vols:  talent on both sides of the ball.

The other teams at the top of the overall list were exceptional on one side of the ball - 2008 defense, 2012 offense - and disastrous on the other side of the ball, which means both only won five games.  To be fair, both under-performing units were breaking in a new coordinator, as are the 2015 Vols.  But we're not trying to go to the 3-4 or the Clawfense.

Butch Jones has put the Vols in position to excel not just because one unit is particularly good.  He has fully restocked the cupboard.  And while we may still have to wait another year for some of those pieces to fully come into their own, we won't be overly reliant on freshmen.  The talent in the starting lineup is spread across multiple classes.

It's just on paper, it's all potential, and it's all we've got right now.  But on paper, as the Vols try to get "back", Team 119 will be the most talented team to try since we lost our way eight years ago.