A look at Tennessee's football program over the last decade bares out both the vagaries of recruiting and the assurances of the draft. For instance: UT has had six players drafted in the first three rounds of the last three drafts. Four of those were taken in the 2003 draft while Kevin Burnett and Dustin Colquitt are the only Vols to be selected in the first three rounds over the last two years. No UT player has been chosen in the first round of the last three drafts.
Compare that to the three prior drafts (2000, 2001, 2002) when Tennessee had 15 players taken on the first day, including five first round picks and six second round selections. In the 2000 draft alone, Tennessee had eight players taken in the first three rounds, or two more than taken in the last three years. In the seasons that correspond to the 2000-2002 drafts, the Vols compiled a 33-5 record with two SEC Championships, one national title and three BCS bowl appearances. Over the last three seasons, UT has gone 29-10 with one division title and no BCS bowl appearances.
Clearly, Tennessee hasn't fallen off the competitive map the last three years, but neither have the Vols been in the national title mix as they were in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2001. The difference appears to be a shortage of top tier difference makers needed to tip the balance against the best competition.
It would be easy to conclude UT hasn't recruited as well in recent years as it did in the late 90s, but that's simply not the case. The Vols have signed more than their share of topflight talent in the new millenium, but hasn't had as much success developing or retaining it.
For example: In 2000, UT signed three of the nation's top 10 rated high school offensive linemen in Michael Munoz, Sean Young and Jason Respert, none of whom were taken in the NFL Draft. In 2001, the Vols landed three of the nation's top 10 rated high school running backs in Jabari Davis, Derrick Tinsley and Cedric Houston. Only Houston, who went in the sixth round to the New York Jets, was drafted. If the Vols guessed wrong on these prospects they had plenty of prominent company as the teams they beat out reads like a who's who of college football.
In 2002, UT added another top five running back prospect in Gerald Riggs of Chattanooga. However, Riggs was slow to develop and only began to realize his potential last season as a junior.
Munoz missed the entire 2001 campaign with knee surgery. Likewise, Respert was plagued by injuries his first four years and didn't become a full-time starter until his fifth season. Young never turned into the dominator he was in high school and was only a part-time starter. Houston was more productive than durable, while neither Tinsley or Davis lived up to expectations. Consequently, what appeared to be the makings of a powerful ground game and team strength in 2001 never got untracked in 2002 and 2003 as the rushing attack became the Vols achilles heel.
In the same Class of 2002 that featured Riggs, the Vols signed six other Parade All-Americans. Four of those prospects — James Banks, Heath Benedict, Brandon Jefferies and Jonathan Mapu — are no longer at UT, although Mapu is expected to return next year after completing his Mormon mission.
Clearly, luck plays a major role in putting together a gridiron powerhouse and is also a vital component in the process of producing NFL talent. UT's downward turn in the draft is more about bad fortune than poor recruiting.
The upside of Tennessee's down click in the NFL Draft is the Vols ability to remain a viable contender with lesser talent. In fact, the 2004 season may have been Phillip Fulmer's best from a coaching standpoint. Tennessee won road games against Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina last season each of whom had at least first round draft choice. The victory over the Bulldogs, who had two players drafted in the first round and three in the second round, was accomplished in Athens behind a true freshman quarterback making his first ever road start.
Two of Tennessee's three loses in 2004 were against an Auburn team that had four first round draft choices. The first setback occurred in Knoxville with Erik Ainge throwing five interceptions in his first start. The second defeat to the Tigers was in the SEC Championship game. The Vols kept the outcome close despite starting their No. 3 QB and having a touchdown called back on a controversial penalty.
In 2003, a Tennessee team that didn't have a single player chosen until the fifth round of the draft knocked off Florida, Miami and Alabama on the road and played Auburn to within a touchdown. In 2002, the Vols managed to cobble together an 8-5 slate with 19 starters missing all or part of the campaign.
There's no way to know how UT's No. 1 rated 2005 recruiting class will translate to success the next four years, but with a little luck Fulmer should have the Vols back in the championship hunt.