Monthly Archives: February 2014

Philip Fulmer: ‘I’m certainly not retired’

Phillip Fulmer in 2013. (KNS photo by Saul Young)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — SI.com has a good story on former Tennessee coach Philip Fulmer’s role in East Tennessee State’s start-up football program.

“I’m certainly not retired,” Fulmer told SI’s Zac Ellis. “People ask me all the time, ‘How are you doing with retirement?’ I’m certainly not retired. I’ve got like three jobs it seems like.”

ETSU ultimately hired Carl Torbush, a coaching veteran who is well-liked and respected in the business. ETSU plays its first game in 2015.

 

How many players will the Vols sign in 2015? As Butch Jones says, it’s in ‘flux’

KNOXVILLE, TennesseeButch Jones told an audience Wednesday at the Knoxville Tipoff Club that the Vols would probably sign 18-22 players in the 2015 class.

But, he quickly added, that number is in “flux” and would remain so for some time.

At first, Jones’ estimate sounded like an underestimation — perhaps a diplomatic one given the Vols just brought in an estimated 32 players in 2014.

But upon further review, it seems likely that UT could sign a class with fewer than 25 prospects in 2015.

The first factor is how many players, if any, the Vols will push forward to 2015 from this class. That number could be zero, one or two, depending on who’s counting.

But let’s assume that doesn’t happen.

Scholarship status cannot always be determined with certainty, but my list has 14 current seniors out of 85 scholarship players.

So to carve out 25 slots for the 2015 class, the roster would have to undergo considerable attrition, with 11 of the 71 non-seniors (roughly 15 percent) moving on with their careers.

There will be attrition, of course, but counting on that much is probably a bit ambitious — at least for now. So Jones’ guess of 18-22 players is probably as good as any. The Vols already have seven verbal commitments in the 2015 class, which means they’re off to an early start.

Some say injury worries could hurt Antonio Richardson’s NFL draft standing

Antonio “Tiny” Richardson warms up during his final week of practice last December (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — What does the future hold for former Tennessee offensive lineman Antonio “Tiny” Richardson?

After his appearance at the NFL Combine, which officially wraps up on Tuesday, that answer is not entirely clearly.

Richardson was expected to be a late first round or early second round choice, according to many projections, but his combine performance was panned by some for being too slow.

That raises another question: His health.

Richardson underwent knee surgery after the 2012 season and at least one reporter — former Tennessee player Charles Davis — has suggested that his knee remains an issue. Davis even suggested that Richardson might have to “redshirt” his freshman season in the NFL.

Obviously, teams don’t draft first round players to “redshirt” them. NFL analyst Daniel Jeremiah even labeled Richardson as a “fifth-round pick.”

This is all unwelcome news for Richardson, who celebrated his 22nd birthday on Monday.

But he can take heart in knowing that misinformation and disinformation is at a premium in the weeks leading up to the NFL draft.

Separating fact from opinion and truth from fiction can be hard to do.

What about the rest of the Vols? Daniel Lewis ran down all their measurements from the Combine. Vols defensive tackle Daniel McCullers will add his numbers to the list on Monday.

Butch Jones on 10-second rule: ‘Obviously I’m not for that’

Butch Jones at practice in 2013 (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee coach Butch Jones said a push to slow down hurry-up offenses is rooted more in coaches’ “personal preference” than concern for player safety.

“I think it’s the equivalent of telling a basketball team you can’t full-court press,” Jones said. “If we want to talk about the overall health, then let’s start limiting blitzes. You talk about protecting players, you give the defense more time to disguise, disrupt the quarterback?”

Jones made the comments on a Friday morning appearance on Nashville radio station 104.5 The Zone.

Jones was in Nashville Thursday for a high school clinic and had to stay overnight after his flight was nixed by bad weather. He’ll be back there again on Saturday for the Nashville Sports Fest.

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema who has seemingly led the public campaign against hurry-up, no-huddle offenses like those employed at Auburn and Oregon (and increasingly elsewhere) raised the stakes in the debate this week.

That’s unlikely to satisfy Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, or Jones, who also said he wanted to see real data on the subject. Although Tennessee’s offense is no-huddle, it hasn’t quite reached the warp-speed level of Auburn. But Jones likes to control the game’s tempo, so it’s likely the offense will speed up as the offense gets better.

“I really look forward to really seeing what type of evidence there is in terms of making the game safer. I’m all for (making the game safer). But I don’t think that’s the avenue to do that,” Jones said.

In 2013, Jones openly predicted the eventual demise of the kickoff, which is still a controversial subject with many coaches. So he’s willing to entertain even radical ideas for making the game safer. But he doesn’t think this proposed rule change would do so.

“I don’t think it comes down to our overall health of our game. I think it comes down to each coach’s personal preference,” he said. “Everything we do is to err on the side of player safety. We need to talk about the punt return and the kickoff return and the kickoff, not how fast we’re going on offense. So obviously I’m not for that (rule change).”

Checking in on Vols at the NFL Combine

Antonio “Tiny” Richardson warms up before his final college game last November at Kentucky (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Defensive lineman Daniel McCullers will start his NFL Combine experience on Friday by attending orientation  the rest of his position grouping, while the four Vols offensive linemen in attendance are in the midst of Day 3.

Some have mentioned that all the linemen looked fairly svelte, especially Ja’Wuan James — although that could be because he decided to shave his head completely.

Here’s how they measured up:

Antonio “Tiny” Richardson: 6-foot-6, 336 pounds (9 pounds heavier than 2013 roster listed weight)

 

Zach Fulton: 6-foot-5, 316 pounds (7 pounds lighter)

James Stone: 6-foot-4, 306 pounds (15 pounds heavier)

Ja’Wuan James: 6-foot-6, 311 pounds  (7 pounds lighter)

James told reporters in Indianapolis that working under different coaches had taught him flexibility and the ability to pick up new offenses.

“I faced great pass-rushers all the time in the SEC,” he said. “I can pass block and I can run block.

The Washington Post describes him as a third or fourth-round pick.

This blog post speculates about which of the four Vols might end up in New England playing for Bill Belichick.

Ranking the recruiters: Tommy Thigpen has been consistently near the top

Tommy Thigpen coaches Malik Foreman in practice last August (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, who was named Rivals.com recruiter of the year earlier this month, is one of several assistants who scored well in 247Sports’ recruiter rankings.

247Sports added the new ranking to its arsenal about a year ago, and has since used its database to rank assistant coaches from past years as well. (The numbers are not as complete as 2014, but are still useful to review).

The rankings show that Thigpen’s prowess as a recruiter is nothing new.

The change in coaching staffs at Tennessee makes it difficult to get an exact picture in 2013.

But in 2011 and 2012, Thigpen was No. 5 and No. 18 nationally, respectively, credited with signing a dozen recruits who helped build Auburn’s SEC championship team in 2013.

If recruiting rankings were once controversial, 247Sports opened up a whole new realm by ranking the recruiters. Initially, I thought coaches would freak out. Coaches are already a competitive breed, and I thought we’d see internal fights about who gets credit for signing each recruit. Maybe that stuff occurs behind the scenes, but I think most coaching staffs have long since made their peace with the recruiting industry. And 247Sports (full disclaimer: the company is a News Sentinel partner with GoVols247) has done a nice job pushing the franchise into new territory.

So let’s take a look at the 2014 rankings. Thigpen, No. 10 overall, was listed as the primary or secondary recruiter on an incredible 17 prospects in this cycle. (Second place was Cincinnati’s Robert Prunty with 14).

Other Vols assistants ranked this year:

Despite a midseason knee injury, running backs coach Robert Gillespie was a prolific recruiter. (photo by Evan Woodbery)

No. 28: Running backs coach Robert Gillespie

No. 38: Tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Mark Elder

No. 60: Defensive line coach and assistant head coach Steve Stripling

No. 107: Defensive backs coach Willie Martinez

No. 150: Receivers coach Zach Azzanni

Nationally, 247Sports said the top recruiter was Georgia’s Bryan McClendon. Former Vol quarterback and current USC assistant Tee Martin was No. 2.

But small sample sizes or a singe elite player can skew the one-year rankings. In 2013, there was a largely new crop of names in the top 10. (McClendon was No. 122; Martin was No. 92). Florida State’s Jeremy Pruitt, now defensive coordinator at Georgia, was No. 1.

The fluctuation shows that plenty of factors lead to a good recruiting ranking. It could depend on the number of players a team plans to sign at a certain position or whether it was a particularly strong year for a certain geographical area.

But Thigpen’s strength seems to transcend those fluctuations. And it’s worth noting that he was a closer of sorts for the Vols’ staff. Butch Jones put him on recruits that weren’t necessarily at his position or his geographic area.

Thigpen came to Tennessee after Auburn dismissed its staff in the wake of a dismal 2012 season. His link to Butch Jones’ Midwestern crew was Martinez, who was also on that Auburn staff in 2012.

Auburn’s coaching staff was stocked with top recruiters — including Trooper Taylor, running backs coach Curtis Luper, offensive line coach Jeff Grimes and others. Coaches always pretend not to care about recruiting rankings, but it was either Taylor or Luper who once said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “If they’re keeping score, I want to win.”

That was refreshing honesty. And there’s no doubt that Thigpen has won a lot.

Vols signee Jalen Hurd ‘soft?’ So says a voice from Southern Cal’s war room

This video was still active as of Monday afternoon.

This video was still active as of Monday afternoon.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — On National Signing Day, recruiting war rooms are often open to the media.

Usually that only means manufactured celebrations for ESPN. Sometimes, however, the microphone can capture frank comments from staff members.

That’s what appears to have happened in the Southern California war room. The Trojans used their official Instagram feed to publicize each new player on National Signing Day.

In the video in question*, a staff member slaps the name of a new signee on the board as an ESPN broadcast buzzes in the background. The network is discussing Tennessee’s class, including Jalen Hurd, and later Jakob Johnson.

An off-camera voice at USC says, “Jalen Hurd is so soft and terrible. I don’t know why he (unintelligible).”

The Instagram video was removed on Monday afternoon and USC issued an apology on its Twitter account.

The identity of the voice is unknown, although most fans on Twitter seem to think it’s a certain Trojans’ assistant coach who once played at UT.

The Vols and Trojans aren’t likely to meet anytime soon. But Hurd, an elite running back prospect  from Hendersonville, Tenn., won’t have to look far for motivation in 2014.

In SEC recruiting game, focus of most teams starts in own backyard

A national view of SEC recruiting midpoints. See the maps below for zoomed-in versions.

A national view of SEC recruiting midpoints. See the maps below for zoomed-in versions.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Most SEC schools keep their focus close to home when signing recruits. That’s why the number of top prospects nearby is such an accurate predictor of a team’s success.

Consider this map a sneak peek of a story I’m working on for later in the month. I charted the high school of each recruit signed by an SEC school to produce the “geographic midpoint” for each team and the league as a whole.

(Yes, you know my obsession with geographic midpoints.)

The results weren’t that startling.

Collectively, the midpoint of every SEC prospect signed in 2014 was near Fayette, Ala., only about 45 miles south of the geographic midpoint of all 14 SEC campuses in Haleyville, Ala.

Only three teams travel a great distance from their home base, and I bet you could have guessed them before I charted this map: Missouri, Arkansas and Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt added a handful of California prospects, which pushed its midpoint west.

Vanderbilt added a handful of California prospects, which pushed its midpoint west.

Vanderbilt was much more pronounced because new coach Derek Mason added some California recruits and lost some in-state signees.

Although the Vols continue to recruit nationally, the midpoint of the class hasn't been this close to Knoxville in years.

Although the Vols continue to recruit nationally, the midpoint of the class hasn’t been this close to Knoxville in years.

What about the Vols? As we’ve written before, Tennessee has moved north under coach Butch Jones, but the new midpoint is in line with the SEC average. (That little pink line on the map points to the “expected midpoint” for each team based on the SEC average).

What schools are outliers, compared to the rest of the league?

Obviously Arkansas, Missouri and Vandy have to recruit nationally out of necessity. Both Arkansas and Missouri recruit aggressively in south Florida, which pushes their midpoint south and east.

Texas A&M and LSU, generally, stick to their own fertile territories without spending too much time fighting others in Atlanta or Florida. That’s reflected in their midpoints.

Alabama recruits nationally despite its talent-rich state, and prospects from Iowa, Colorado and Minnesota helped push the Tide’s midpoint north this year.

The green map marker circled in white is Fayette, Ala., the geographic midpoint of every SEC recruit signed in 2014. That's only 45 miles southwest of Haleyville, Ala., (the green circle), which is the geographic midpoint of all 14 SEC campuses.

The green map marker circled in white is Fayette, Ala., the geographic midpoint of every SEC recruit signed in 2014. That’s only 45 miles southwest of Haleyville, Ala., (the green circle), which is the geographic midpoint of all 14 SEC campuses.

Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State have nearby midpoints. The Bulldogs’ midpoint is in Macon, Miss., which is just 38 miles from Starkville.

I thought this was interesting: Florida and Georgia have very similar recruiting midpoints. The Gators did have plenty of south Florida recruits, but their 2014 class had much more of a national flavor than you might expect. Recruits from Brooklyn, N.Y., and Wyoming pushed the midpoint north and west.

Georgia, meanwhile, had a smaller class (after signing more than 30 last year) and had a strong south Florida presence. (You’ll recall that Tennessee didn’t sign a south Florida prospect for the first time in five years).

What does all this mean?

* Even for a conference in the southeast corner of the United States, most teams still push even further south.

* Texas A&M and Missouri have expanded the geographic boundaries of the conference, but the Aggies rule Texas and don’t have to venture far from there.

* Next to Texas A&M, LSU has the strongest commitment to owning its home base.

* Even teams with strong local bases have a balanced national recruiting strategy.

* If you cover recruiting in the southeast, you should buy a house in Fayette, Ala.

Any other stuff I missed? Let me know.

A look at 2014 salaries for UT football coaches, support staff

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KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — We’re running our annual review of salaries in the Tennessee football program in tomorrow’s News Sentinel. Subscribers can check out the full story on GoVolsXtra later tonight.

There weren’t many changes between 2013 and now,  as you can see for yourself in the two charts.

Among on-field coaches, there was no change at all. All nine coaches are working under the same contract — and same salary — they had 365 days ago.

That jibes with Dave Hart‘s comments during a round of interviews in December. Hart didn’t seem inclined to give raises for assistants who were in the middle of two-year contracts.

Of course, things can change if another team comes calling. But if UT’s assistants were shopping for new jobs this offseason, we didn’t hear anything about it.

Only one assistant has been given a raise during Butch Jones’ tenure, and that was more than a year ago. Defensive backs coach Willie Martinez signed a new deal on Feb. 10, 2013 that increased his base and supplemental pay from $280,000 to $350,000. About that same time, Martinez added the title of assistant head coach for defense.

All the coaches are under contract through Feb. 28, 2015 — essentially, the 2014 season. One-year contracts were once the standard for assistants, but multi-year deals are becoming more routine.

Because the last pay cycle in the current contract runs from March 1, 2014 to Feb. 28, 2015, we’ll check again in March to see if there have been any alterations to the deals in place now.

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Vols receiver Ryan Jenkins will miss spring football with injury

Ryan Jenkins

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Redshirt freshman Ryan Jenkins had hoped to shake off an injury-riddled debut season with a fresh start in spring football.

But lingering injuries will keep him sidelined for spring football, which begins March 7.

Jenkins, tight end A.J. Branisel and defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry are all slated to miss the spring season, coach Butch Jones said.

Jenkins redshirted after dealing with persistent setbacks in his first year. He rarely practiced and spent most of time doing rehab. Jones was optimistic in December that Jenkins was improving, but offseason surgery thwarted his plan to return to action.

A graduate of Lassiter High in Marietta, Ga., Jenkins is the son of Lee Jenkins, a UT cornerback from 1980-82.