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Tennessee: No players drafted could be good sign for 2015

5/6/2015

By now we’ve all seen this note: Tennessee failed to have a player selected in the NFL draft for the first time since 1963. It was one of six schools to have at least one player selected in each year in the common draft era.

At first glance that is not a good sign for the Volunteers; a blue-chip program should be producing NFL-level talent.

Digging deeper into the numbers, however, reveals that the Volunteers did not have a player drafted in part because they did not have many draft-eligible players.

According to ESPN Insider Phil Steele, Tennessee will return 18 starters (other sites have them with as many as 20), tied with Vanderbilt for the most in the SEC.

The Volunteers return a junior quarterback (Joshua Dobbs), a sophomore running back (Jalen Hurd) and four offensive line starters. Last season, Tennessee entered the year with question marks at all of those positions.

Eighteen returning starters and a top-five recruiting class in each of the past two years have the Volunteers in prime position for the 2015 season. ESPN's Football Power Index projects Tennessee with the third-best chance to win the SEC.

One reason for the lofty projections is that the Volunteers are in the SEC East, so they have an easier path to the SEC championship game than the contenders in the West.

The other reason for the projections is their numbers of returning starters.

Tennessee ranks 14th in preseason FPI (plus-18.8). If the Volunteers returned, say, 12 starters (six offense, six defense), their preseason FPI rank would fall out of the top 25, and if one of those 12 starters was not a quarterback, their FPI ranking would fall out of the top 35.

In other words, the reason Tennessee did not have a player drafted (lots of returning starters) is the same reason the Volunteers should be improved in 2015.

The other major reason they did not have a player drafted last week is the inability to recruit and develop talent under former coach Derek Dooley, under whom their recruiting-class rankings progressively declined (ninth in 2010, 13th in 2011 and 21st in 2012). Many of the top players in those classes transferred, left school early or weren't developed enough to warrant being drafted.

With Butch Jones as coach, Tennessee has a resurgence of talent (two consecutive top-five recruiting classes), and the development of its players is palpable.

The Volunteers won four of their final five games in 2014, including a 45-28 win against Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The offense, particularly the run game, improved with Dobbs and Hurd.

Although the Volunteers did not have a player drafted in 2015, significant talent remains in Knoxville, leading FPI and others to believe that this is the year the Volunteers could again become contenders in the SEC.