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Looking back on previous Tennessee football top 10 signing classes post-Phillip Fulmer, before 2023

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The 2023 Tennessee football signing class ranked ninth in the country. That’s no small feat. However, it’s no guarantee of future success.

Previous to this latest recruiting class, the Vols only had four classes ranked in the 247Sports Composite top 10 since 2009, when Tennessee began churning through head coaches like free nachos following Phillip Fulmer’s long, successful tenure as a recruiter. A lack of continuity has made it difficult for Tennessee football to have a consistent flow of talented players in its program that actually produce.

Perhaps Josh Heupel, in his second season, can change that. There’s evidence that he’s headed in that direction. Heupel’s first season as a recruiter at Tennessee resulted in a class that ranked 17th in the nation.

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That certainly won’t cut it long term, but Heupel deserves a pass on that on. He took over a program full of disfunction. There was no way that any coach was going to land a solid, high-ranking class with such a massive transition going on.

Now, it seems, Heupel has proven he can recruit alongside some of the top programs in the SEC. Heupel’s 2023 class ranked fourth in the SEC and sixth if you include Texas and Oklahoma, which will join the conference in 2025. If that’s the benchmark, then there’s reason to be optimistic considering Heupel seems ahead of the curve with his offensive scheme and has shown he can develop players in his short time as a Vol.

A top-10 class is a great start, but history shows that there’s much more work to be done, on the field and in recruiting. Here’s a look at Tennessee’s other classes that ranked 10th or better in the nation since the end of Fulmer’s tenure.

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2009 – No. 8

Well, this class was just a mess. While it looked good on paper, the Vols didn’t get much out of the eighth-ranked class in the nation. There were some contributors, like defensive lineman Daniel Hood and cornerback Marsalis Teague, but this class will always be remembered as a huge bust and there’s good reason why. 

Tennessee’s 2009 class was built on promises by coach Lane Kiffin, who broke many of those promises when he bolted for Southern California. With little leadership, the 2009 class was undermined by off-field issues. 

Perhaps things would have been different had Kiffin stayed. However, character was not a driving force in Kiffin’s first recruiting class as a Vol. He was looking for talented players no matter what issues they could have had in the past or could have had in the future.

2010 – No. 7

Tennessee’s 2010 class was also primarily signed by Kiffin and panned out much better despite his departure. Quarterback Tyler Bray was certainly the headliner in retrospect, despite his off-field issues. The Vols also landed receiver Da’Rick Rogers, offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James, receiver Justin Hunter and defensive lineman Jacques Smith. 

The Vols lost some of their commitments that chose to go elsewhere when Kiffin left. Had he stayed, the 2010 class would have likely been ranked fifth or higher in the nation. 

2014 – No. 7

Tennessee’s 2014 class proved to be much more worthy of its ranking than the previous recruiting classes mentioned above. The Vols landed bona fide stars in the 2014 class, headlined by defensive end Derek Barnett and receiver Josh Malone. 

Tennessee also landed plenty of contributors in the 2014 class, which included running back Jalen Hurd, defensive back Todd Kelly Jr. and the Berry brothers, Evan and Elliot, who excelled in the defensive backfield and on special teams.

2015 – No. 4

Tennessee’s 2015 class had plenty of star power. However, its highest rated signee, defensive lineman Kahlil McKenzie, never lived up to expectations. In his place, Kyle Phillips and Shy Tuttle were standout players on the defensive line after signing with the Vols in 2015.

Former Tennessee football coach Butch Jones also landed running back Alvin Kamara and receiver Jauan Jennings in the 2015 class. Both were probably underutilized in college. However, there’s no denying their talent warranted their rating, which bolstered the class’ ranking.

Conclusion

While none of the above classes completely lived up to expectations, there’s a common denominator why they didn’t. The Vols didn’t have stability amongst the entire administration, much less at the head coaching position. With that issue seemingly resolved, Tennessee football is in better position to reap the rewards from its latest highly rated signing class.

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