Back to Back
Tennessee plugged a hole by landing two blue-chip ballcarriers
With 16 starters returning from a team that won its last six
regular-season games and finished 8-4, Tennessee had a main
recruiting objective in its bid to get back into the top 10 next
fall: tailbacks, and lots of them. As proven by Jamal Lewis in
1997, a freshman back can excel in coach Phil Fulmer's multiple
offense. Lewis, the Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens' leading
rusher, ran for 1,364 yards and seven touchdowns in his first
season with the Volunteers. Senior Travis Stephens, a backup last
season (359 yards on 81 carries in 2000), is Tennessee's only
experienced tailback, so the Vols need to find another Lewis.
From an original list of the 11 tailback prospects who would best
fit Tennessee's offense, the coaches in early January focused on
signing three physical, inside runners: Jabari Davis of Tucker
High in Stone Mountain, Ga.; Cedric Houston of Clarendon (Ark.)
High; and Carnell Williams of Attalla High in Etowah, Ala. All
three eventually made oral commitments to the Vols, but at no
point before the national signing date, Feb. 7, were they all
committed at the same time.
Back on Oct. 14, 1999, Arkansas coach Houston Nutt's 42nd
birthday, Cedric Houston had declared that he would be a
Razorback. More than a year later, however, Nutt watched Houston,
a Parade All-America, with increasing apprehension. "An
18-year-old goes to Knoxville and looks at that stadium and the
championship rings, and then he thinks, I'm going to a team that
doesn't have any backs," Nutt says. Sure enough, on Jan. 14,
2001, the 205-pound Houston, who combines speed and power, made
an oral commitment to Tennessee, only to seemingly hedge again on
Feb. 1. His mother and an aunt assured Nutt that Cedric would go
to Arkansas. Nutt, however, never heard that message from
Houston. "The bottom line is, he couldn't say no to anybody,"
Nutt says. On signing day Houston said yes to the Vols.
Also on Jan. 14, Williams, the 195-pound Mr. Football in Alabama,
announced that he'd attend Tennessee. However, after Auburn's
Rudi Johnson, the SEC Offensive Player of the Year, declared on
Jan. 12 that he was leaving school early for the NFL, Tigers
coach Tommy Tuberville started blitzing Williams. The NCAA allows
seven assistant coaches to recruit off-campus at once, and
Tuberville brought all seven of his to visit Williams on Jan. 15.
Two weeks later Williams committed to Auburn.
Davis, a 230-pounder known as J-Train and ranked as the top high
school ballcarrier in the nation by PrepStar, didn't commit to
the Vols until a week before signing day. Davis, who rushed for
1,342 yards and 20 touchdowns at Tucker High last fall, wavered
between Georgia and the Volunteers. "I felt Tennessee was the
best situation for a running back with my style, power and
speed," Davis says. "The running back is going to be a major part
of Tennessee's success." It also didn't help the Bulldogs that
Davis likes to wear number 34 in honor of his hero, the late
Walter Payton. Thirty-four is sacred in Georgia because Herschel
Walker wore it, and the Dawgs retired it in 1985.
Fulmer shrewdly saved his visit to Houston's house until Feb. 3,
the last day allowed. Sure enough, Houston committed to
Tennessee. In addition to Davis and Houston, the Volunteers
signed two other speedy backs: 180-pound Derrick Tinsley of
Marietta, Ga., and 200-pound Keldrick Williams of Montgomery,
Ala. Only Davis and Houston, however, appear ready to play as
soon as they decipher the playbook. "Whether they carry the bulk
of the load or just a part of the load, they're talented enough
to make a contribution," Fulmer says.
If he's right, Tennessee's climb back to the top 10 will be much
He's My Daddy, Not My Boss
Nepotism? What nepotism? To get around a Florida State
University regulation that prohibits employees from directly
supervising relatives, new Seminoles offensive coordinator Jeff
Bowden, 41, the youngest son of coach Bobby Bowden, will
"report" to associate head coach Jim Gladden.... New USC coach
Pete Carroll scored a late recruiting coup when USA Today
Defensive Player of the Year Shaun Cody, a 6'5", 255-pound
defensive lineman, signed with the Trojans instead of Notre Dame
or UCLA.... Kentucky athletic director Larry Ivy deserves praise
for getting coach Hal Mumme, who was under fire for possible
NCAA violations by some of his assistant coaches, to quit the
day before signing day. The timely move gave prospects a chance
to change their minds about going to Lexington and playing for
the new coach, Guy Morriss, who was promoted from assistant head
coach. Only one recruit, Kentucky all-state quarterback Gino
Guidugli, decided to keep looking.
COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER Davis, a.k.a. the J-Train, decided to chug for Tennessee, not for Georgia.
THE BIG PAYOFF
Of the five schools deemed by recruiting experts to have had the
No. 1 through No. 5 recruiting classes in 1996, two--Tennessee
in 1998 and Florida State in '99--went on to win national
championships within the five years of the recruits' eligibility.
1996 1997 1998 1999 2000
1. Ohio State 11-1 10-3 11-1 6-6 8-4
2. Penn State 11-2 9-3 9-3 10-3 5-7
3. USC 6-6 6-5 8-5 6-6 5-7
4. Florida State 11-1 11-1 11-2 12-0 11-2
5. Tennessee 10-2 11-2 13-0 9-3 8-4