Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football. Fans of the Tennessee Volunteers know this, especially after head coach Butch Jones has pulled in back-to-back consensus top 10 recruiting classes. Similarly, the 2009 recruiting class was another highly-ranked class for the Vols, but that class is likely the most notorious recruiting class in Tennessee history. And for good reason.
Tennessee fired long-time head coach Phillip Fulmer during the tail end of the 2008 season, and Lane Kiffin was named his successor in December of that year. Kiffin had 2 months to hold together the 2009 recruiting class and add a few of his own pieces to the mix. Kiffin did more than just that, hauling in the No. 8 overall class in 2009 according to 247Sports. The 2009 class, however, would be dubbed the most disappointing recruiting class in the last decade by Rivals.com. But as memorable as that class was for its departures, arrests, and poor play, that class should also be remembered for two players who weren't apart of it.
Phillip Fulmer has been blamed for getting complacent in recruiting at the end of his Tennessee career. But Fulmer had two quarterbacks committed in the 2009 class before he was fired, and both Tajh Boyd and Bryce Petty were ready to come in and play for the Vols even after Fulmer was fired.
When Lane Kiffin was hired, he brought with him a different style of offense and a completely different philosophy on how to manage players. Kiffin allegedly never spoke to Boyd directly; instead, Kiffin talked with Boyd's father and told him his son's scholarship would still be honored but that Boyd didn't fit into his offensive system. Because of that, Boyd reopened his recruitment and eventually traded in the Tennessee orange for Clemson's.
Similarly, Bryce Petty envisioned himself as a future Tennessee quarterback, stating he wanted to be Tennessee's next Peyton Manning. But Petty would never get the chance to live out his dream at Tennessee, as Kiffin did something similar with Petty as well. Kiffin had been on the job for ten days, and Petty and his family still hadn't heard from him. Petty took the hint and decommitted from the Vols, eventually landing at Baylor.
The Vols would end up not landing a quarterback in the 2009 class, but Tyler Bray would join the team in the 2010 class. And while Bray certainly had a solid statistical career at Tennessee, it doesn't compare to the type of success both Boyd and Petty had in college.
Bray will forever go down simultaneously as one of the most productive and least liked quarterbacks in Tennessee history. His lack of leadership plagued his teams, and while he put up record-breaking numbers his junior season, he crumbled at the most pivotal moments and lacked the support system necessary to succeed.
But what if the Vols didn't have to pick up Bray in the 2010 class? What if Tennessee had kept Boyd and Petty? Or at least even one of them?
Boyd and Petty were both Heisman contenders at one point in their college careers. Both redshirted their freshmen year (Petty even grayshirted in 2009), but Boyd got his shot as a starter first. Boyd would be a 3-year starter for Clemson where he amassed 11,904 passing yards, 107 touchdowns, 1,165 rushing yards, and 26 scores on the ground. Boyd's 26 rushing touchdowns would actually rank him tied for 6th on UT's all-time rushing scores list, and his 11,904 career passing yards would even put him above Peyton Manning's UT-record 11,204 yards. His 901 career completions would also top Manning's 863 completions. He would even be Tennessee's 3rd-winningst quarterback in program history with a 32-8 career record.
Petty only started two years at Baylor, but his stats are just as impressive in his time there. In two seasons as starter, Petty threw for 8,055 yards, 61 touchdowns, and just 10 interceptions in 845 pass attempts. Petty wasn't as mobile as Boyd, but he still ran for 310 yards in those two seasons and scored 20 rushing touchdowns in 2 years as starter. Petty went 22-4 as a starter for Baylor, winning at least a share of the Big 12 both seasons.
While either Boyd or Petty would likely have had different careers had they stayed at Tennessee and competed in the SEC, their careers show the kind of talent Kiffin turned away. Tyler Bray clearly had talent and showed it at times while at Tennessee, but the types of players Boyd and Petty were are players who can turn around a team's fortune in a hurry. Just look at Clemson's and Baylor's records before Boyd and Petty took over.
The 5 seasons before Boyd took over at quarterback for Clemson saw the Tigers go 39-27 and never saw the Tigers win more than 9 games. Boyd never won fewer than 10 games in his 3 seasons as starter. Similarly, Baylor's record in the previous 5 seasons before Petty became starter was 33-33. The two year run Baylor had under Petty's guidance was the best two year span in program history.
That kind of turnaround would've drastically changed how the last 5 years played out for Tennessee. It's not realistic to think the Vols could've held on to both quarterbacks for the duration of their college careers, but holding on to either one of them could've dramatically altered how the Vols performed over the last half decade. But the reality is that Tennessee ended up with neither player.
If Lane Kiffin hadn't pushed away both Tajh Boyd and Bryce Petty, Tennessee could have a much healthier football program right now. Baylor and Clemson are both examples that both quarterbacks had the ability to ignite a team and reverse their fortunes. But Kiffin decided both players didn't fit his offense, and neither ended up in Tennessee orange.