Fulmer has Vols back on top

Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer is the quintessential recruiter, which means recruiting never strays too far from his thoughts.

Golfers think about hitting greens. Bankers think about reeling in high-dollar accounts, and recruiters think about stockpiling talent.

As Fulmer puts the wraps on what will be his sixth consecutive top 10 class, one thing is clear. The dean of Southeastern Conference coaches hasn't lost his zeal when it comes to pounding the recruiting pavement.

"You can tell that Phillip loves recruiting," said veteran recruiting analyst Tom Lemming.

"He comes across to these kids as down to earth. He might have a street named after him in front of the stadium, but he doesn't put on airs. He's hard working and will never be outworked in recruiting.

"He has that chip on his shoulder, too, and isn't going to let anybody else get a jump on him."

The Vols' quick jump on a couple nationally rated prospects was one of the keys in building the foundation for the SEC's highest-rated class.

Tailback LaMarcus Coker of Antioch, Tenn., committed to the Vols more than a year ago, all the way back on Dec. 23, 2003.

About six months later, quarterback Jonathan Crompton of Waynesville, N.C., followed suit and selected the Vols in June.

The May evaluation period was barely over, and already Tennessee had the state's best running back in the fold, not to mention the Carolinas' best quarterback.

Auburn made a strong push for Coker, but he held firm.

Georgia continued to woo Crompton, especially after true freshman quarterback Erik Ainge had such a hot start for the Vols. Steve Spurrier, after taking over at South Carolina, tried to get in the door with Crompton. And more recently, new Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis made a pitch.

Each time, Crompton said thanks, but no thanks.

"I feel right at home there," said Crompton, who traveled to Tennessee on his own dime several times to help with the Vols' recruiting efforts.

"I couldn't really see myself anywhere else when it came right down to it. They're a big-time winning program, and that was important to me. I feel close to all the coaches, and it's just 90 minutes from home, which was also attractive. In the end, nobody really compared to Tennessee."

By Nov. 1, the Vols already had nine commitments -- and plenty of momentum.

Playing a pair of true freshmen at quarterback, Brent Schaeffer and Ainge, certainly didn't hurt. And true to form, Fulmer was quick to point out in virtually every interview he did concerning the Vols' young guns that the best players are always going to play at Tennessee regardless of class.

Many of the nation's top prospects took notice.

"The great thing about Tennessee is that they play guys when they're ready," said Lovejoy, Ga., offensive lineman Chris Scott, who picked the Vols over Florida, LSU and Georgia. "Watching their games this year on television, you saw freshmen all over the place."

Scott is one of eight players who played in the U.S. Army Reserve All-American Bowl in San Antonio last month who plans to sign with Tennessee. He settled on the Vols much later than Coker and Crompton and didn't announce his decision until last week.

But he liked what he saw from some of his future teammates during the week-long practices for the All-American Bowl.

"When you go to Tennessee, you know you're going to be part of a team with great players," Scott said. "You saw a little glimpse of that out in San Antonio."

Crompton also played in that game, as did defensive end Raymond Henderson of Oak Creek, Wis., linebacker Rico McCoy of Washington, D.C., center Josh McNeil of Collins, Miss., cornerback Demetrice Morley of Miami, safety Adam Myers-White of Hamilton, Ohio, and receiver Slick Shelley of Fort Smith, Ark.

Shelley is the latest of the Vols' 23 commitments. He announced Monday night after narrowing it to LSU and Tennessee.

They hope to add a few more on Wednesday. Safety Kenny Phillips of Miami, defensive end Vladimir Richard of Sunrise, Fla., linebacker Gerald Williams of Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., and running back Montario Hardesty of New Bern, N.C., all plan to announce on National Signing Day.

The bittersweet thing about this year's class for the Vols was that three of the top five prospects in the state went elsewhere.

Receiver Patrick Turner of Nashville opted for Southern Cal, offensive tackle Michael Oher of Memphis for Mississippi and defensive end Barry Turner of Nashville for Nebraska.

Unlike most of its neighboring states in the SEC, Tennessee doesn't produce a wealth of Division I-A talent. But under Fulmer, the Vols have almost always been able to keep the best players at home.

Even with the three high-profile defections, Tennessee still has nine players in this class who played their high school football in the state.

Flying under the radar somewhat is defensive tackle Demonte Bolden, who was the No. 1-rated player in the state in 2004.

Originally from Chattanooga, he failed to qualify academically, however, and went to Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy for a semester. He enrolled at Tennessee last month and will go through spring practice with the Vols in March with a chance to jump into the tackle rotation immediately.

Chris Low covers the SEC for the Nashville Tennessean.