Tennessee Volunteers Football: All-Time Best Recruit at Each Position
The Tennessee Volunteers bring in some of the nation's best recruits each and every year. Sure, some don't turn out, but that doesn't take away from the excitement coaches and fans felt when the player signed the dotted line.
Who are the Vols' biggest recruits in school history?
No matter what, the hype will be far too much for some of these "can't miss" players. I assure you, some will miss. At the same time, some will come completely out of nowhere to become huge contributors and key cogs in a championship wheel.
Recruiting didn't become the industry it is today until 10 years ago, but there are still some Vols before that time that were hotly recruited.
I bet you can name one right now.
Of the players featured in the coming slides, four made it to the NFL, three ended their careers with teams not named Tennessee, two quit football altogether after college and one met an untimely death.
But all eight were hyped recruits at one time.
Quarterback: Peyton Manning
Could it be anyone else? The most hyped quarterback recruit in Tennessee history is none other than Peyton Manning.
After a senior season at Isidore Newman School featuring 39 touchdowns and 2,703 yards with a 63 percent completion rate, Manning's early 1990s recruitment looked more like a modern day one. The son of an SEC legend, Manning was seemingly born to play quarterback, specifically for Ole Miss, Archie's alma mater.
But after Michigan, Florida State, Notre Dame and Mississippi all finished their sales pitches, it was Tennessee who received the commitment of the Gatorade Circle of Champions National Player of the Year. The Volunteers finished with the top recruiting class in 1994, thanks to Manning.
Immediately, he assumed the workman mentality that he's now famous for, "All I can do is come in and learn. I'm going in to compete and wanting to play." (Times Daily, 1994)
Learn, compete and play, he did.
Manning became the most celebrated Volunteer of all time, breaking every conceivable passing record at Tennessee.
He still owns the vast majority of those records today.
Manning won three bowls and one SEC Championship Game at Tennessee but was famously 0-3 against the hated Florida Gators.
After being named an All-American in 1997, he was selected first overall in the 1998 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts.
Since then, he has been named NFL MVP four times, earned 12 trips to the Pro Bowl and won a Super Bowl.
The hype was warranted.
Running Back: Bryce Brown
Brown was a four-year starter for Wichita East, racking up over 7,000 yards rushing during his high school days. He was called "Kansas' most dangerous high school back since Barry Sanders" by Sports Illustrated in 2007, leaving no doubt as to how hyped the running back was.
But a self-identified trainer and manager named Brian Butler should've set alarms off for the Volunteers. After months of being committed to Miami, Butler was now suggesting he might have Brown play for the Canadian Football League, rather than go to college.
Butler also sold news on Brown for $9.99 to $59 for an annual subscription to a website dedicated to the running back.
He was a parasite.
Because of the chaos, Brown did not sign with anyone on National Signing Day, 2009.
But after a few weeks of coaxing, Lane Kiffin was able to get Brown to commit to Tennessee in March.
As a true freshman, Brown performed nicely with 460 rushing yards and three touchdowns as a backup to Montario Hardesty. But after Kiffin bolted for USC, Brown decided to leave Tennessee on the first day of spring practice in 2010.
Kiffin's replacement ,Derek Dooley, did not grant Brown an exemption, so the former Army All-American had to sit out for a season at Kansas State. He received three carries in 2011, his first season back, and was drafted in the seventh round in 2012 by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Brown had back-to-back games of over 150 yards rushing in place of the injured LeSean McCoy but had an otherwise quiet rookie season in 2012.
Wide Receiver: Robert Meachem
Google "Wide Receiver U" and see what college comes up repeatedly in the search results.
The Tennessee Volunteers once held that title prominently in the days of Carl Pickens and regained it when Robert Meachem committed in 2003.
Meachem, a two-sport star at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, amassed 1,074 offensive yards and 18 total touchdowns his senior year, while also winning two consecutive state championships as a point guard for the basketball team.
In the end, though, it was Tennessee that won out.
Meachem headlined an elite recruiting haul of wide receivers. Joining him was Bret Smith and Jayson Swain, completing a trio that was unrivaled in 2003.
Phillip Fulmer said, "I can't remember [a time]...that we signed three or four better receivers than we were able to pull off in this class." (Gadsen Times, 2003)
It took a few years for the 6'3", 200-pound receiver to find his groove, but in 2006, when David Cutcliffe returned to coach Eric Ainge, Meachem was the primary beneficiary of the improved quarterback play.
He reeled in a school record 1,298 receiving yards, 71 receptions and 11 touchdowns, garnering All-American honors that season. Meachem forewent his senior year at Tennessee and was a first round selection by the New Orleans Saints in the 2007 NFL Draft.
Meachem has played five years in the NFL for the Saints and San Diego Chargers, catching 155 passes for 2,476 yards and 25 touchdowns.
When his Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009, Meachem contributed receptions.
Tight End: Aaron Douglas
Tennessee hasn't been known for its tight ends throughout history. Other than Jason Witten and Mychal Rivera, the Volunteers haven't made use of them like other schools (see Miami).
But it was Maryville product Aaron Douglas whose recruitment signaled an intention to change that. A 6'6", 245-pound tight end that can move is reason enough to be excited, but when you add his pedigree, the hype was inevitable.
Douglas' father played football under Johnny Majors, while his mother played basketball under Pat Summitt, both iconic coaches on The Hill.
After redshirting during the 2008 season, Douglas was moved from tight end to offensive tackle by Lane Kiffin, a move that suited him, garnering Kiffin's praise, "It was a great change moving him there from tight end, he's going to be a great tackle for us."
But when Derek Dooley was hired to replace Kiffin, Douglas decided to transfer. Dooley required him to be at least eight hours away from Knoxville, so he ended up in Arizona Western College for the 2010 season.
Poised for a strong return to the SEC, Douglas tragically died on May 12, 2011 of a drug overdose and ended what looked to be a resurfacing career as an excellent offensive lineman.
Offensive Lineman: Michael Munoz
When the son shows signs of being as good as the old man, it's even better.
That's how the Vols felt when Michael Munoz, son of Anthony, picked Tennessee in December of 1999.
The 6'7", 285-pound offensive lineman could've gone to virtually any college he wanted, and as a native of Cincinnati, the city where his dad became a Hall of Famer, Ohio State was certainly hot after him.
Moeller High School Head Coach Steve Klonne said of Munoz, "Michael is just an exceptional athlete and person. He has tremendous quickness and is the most athletic big guy I've ever seen for an interior lineman." (AP, 1999)
Such praise and pedigree earned him a 12th-overall ranking by recruiting analyst Tom Lemming, which helped Tennessee receive a top-five class ranking by many independent analysts before the days of major recruiting services in 2000.
On Rocky Top, Munoz was stellar when he was on the field. He started each of the 46 games he played in at both tackle positions, was elected captain his junior and senior years and earned All-American honors in 2004.
The only problem was he had an injury-riddled career as a Volunteer. Munoz was out the entire 2001 season with a knee injury, missed time with an ankle infection and had his career end with a torn rotator cuff during his senior year.
Munoz went undrafted in the 2005 NFL Draft. He has an MBA from Miami of Ohio and now owns a marketing and advertising agency in Cincinnati.
Defensive Lineman: Ben Martin
You'll see more from the class later.
The Cincinnati native had offers from Florida, Notre Dame and Ohio State, who, in particular, were keen on keeping his defensive end skills in state. Phillip Fulmer, however, was able to secure his commitment in February of 2007.
247sports named Martin the 22nd-best player in the country, as well as the nation's third-rated defensive end. The Volunteers believed Martin solidified their pass rush for the next four years.
After appearing in 20 games during his first two seasons, Martin made the leap to starter as a junior in 2009. That year, he amassed 38 tackles, six for a loss and five sacks.
It seemed that Martin was on the verge of breaking out when an Achilles injury sidelined him for the entire 2010 season.
After working hard to rehab the injury, Martin suffered the exact same injury in his other leg in February of 2011. Luckily, he was able to make it back that fall, but it was his grit and determination that was more impressive than his stat line.
Martin ended his senior year with 18 tackles and no sacks.
He wasn't drafted or signed to a free agent contract after the 2012 NFL Draft.
Linebacker: Chris Donald
When Tennessee missed out on in-state linebacker Dont'a Hightower in 2008, they weren't too worried about it. Just the year before, they had signed a significantly better linebacker prospect by anyone's standards: Chris Donald.
Donald was a blue chip recruit that Alabama, Notre Dame and Clemson were hot after throughout his junior and senior season at Huntington High School. Rivals analyst Tim Prister said, "He is an explosive tackler. He accelerates through the ball carrier... he also can sprint across the field and pursue like a heat-seeking missile."
But on the drive from Huntington to Knoxville, Donald must have misread that as "bench-seeking missile" because the can't-miss prospect missed and missed big.
While Hightower went on to win two BCS National Championships at Alabama before being a first round selection of the New England Patriots, Donald played in nine games as a Volunteer, starting none, before transferring to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, where he experienced one season of mild success.
After his year at UTC, Donald quit football because of "recurring wrist problems."
Defensive Back: Eric Berry
In the same 2007 recruiting class as Chris Donald was a Vol legacy whose dad had done some good in his time on Rocky Top. James Berry was a running back, but his son Eric Berry played defense back.
And he did it better than anyone in Tennessee history.
At Creekside High School in Fairburn, Georgia, Berry led his team to a 37-5 record as a four-year starting quarterback and safety. He was named an Army All-American, among numerous other honors, and was one of the most aggressively recruited players in the country.
Berry was rated the third-best player in the nation, as well as the top cornerback by both 247sports and Rivals. The future star safety considered Georgia, USC and Ohio State in addition to Tennessee.
In the end, the familiar shade of orange was too much to turn down. His father said of his son's intention to follow in his footsteps, "He'’ll dredge his own path. I guess he gets that from his mother."
Once in Knoxville, Berry started in every game from 2007 to 2009. He was named SEC Defensive Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-American after setting records for tackles, interceptions and interception returns yards for a freshman.
He was key piece in the 2007 SEC East divisional crown.
As a sophomore, Berry was named a team captain for 2008 after just one season with the Volunteers. He tallied 72 tackles, eight for a loss, three sacks and seven interceptions. He dazzled crowds with his brilliant interception returns, whose career total was now at 487 yards, second-best in NCAA history.
Teams steered clear of passing toward Berry during his junior season. He still intercepted two passes but made his primary contribution as a leader and tackler. He racked up 89 tackles, seven for a loss, while recovering two fumbles.
Berry was named a unanimous All-American for the second straight year and won the Jim Thorpe Award after his junior season. He accrued seven interception yards in 2009, leaving him just eight shy of the all-time NCAA record, which he would've shattered had he not opted for the NFL after his junior season.
Berry was selected fifth overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2010 NFL Draft. He made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, the first Chief to do so since 1989, and again in 2012, after missing 2011 with a knee injury.
Eric Berry's hype was spot on. He is the greatest defensive back in Tennessee Volunteers history.