KNOXVILLE – Kenny O’Neal was supposed to boost Tennessee’s receiving production significantly in 2007.
A former Florida State receiver, O’Neal was the top junior college receiver prospect in the nation that year and had all the makings of a sure-fire, can’t-miss prospect that would immediately make an impact. Given that he lasted all of one season in Knoxville and accounted for just two receptions, it’s safe to say O’Neal’s production didn’t match the hype.
He is an example of the cautionary side of taking a junior college player.
Sometimes it works out just fine. Where would Auburn have been had it not plucked Cam Newton or defensive tackle Nick Fairley out of the junior college ranks? The answer — at least on Jan. 10, 2011 — would be, “not winning a national championship.”
A year and a half after Auburn lifted that championship trophy, the Vols find themselves again wondering how some highly touted JUCO prospects will pan out.
Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson of Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College, defensive lineman Darrington Sentimore of Gulf Coast (Miss.) Community College and defensive tackle Daniel McCullers of Georgia Military College are three of the most talked about members of the 2012 squad. None have played a down, yet all are penciled in as major contributors.
Bert Williams, McCullers’ coach at GMC, thinks McCullers will live up to the hype.
“Even those SEC linemen aren’t going to move him off the ball,” Williams said of McCullers, who reportedly weighs around 350 pounds after playing much of his junior college career at 6-foot-6 and 390 pounds. “Teams just couldn’t run the ball up the middle on us. Either he would make the play or they would double- or triple-team him and a linebacker would get it.”
Patterson, ranked as the No. 1 junior college player in the nation by 247Sports.com, has drawn similar praise.
“He's a bully on the outside, and that's meant in a good way,” wrote analyst Scott Kennedy of Scout.com. “He attacks defensive backs with the ball in his hands, and with his long strides, he's deceptively fast. His size and skill make him a difficult cover.”
Sentimore, a member of Alabama’s 2009 national championship squad, enrolled in January and left spring practice in the two-deep on the defensive line.
The expectations are clearly high for the latest junior college experiments to come through Tennessee. The Dooley era has already shown the precarious nature of recruiting the junior college ranks. The three JUCOs from the 2011 recruiting class — defensive tackle Maurice Couch, cornerback Izauea Lanier and defensive back Byron Moore — have seen mixed results.
Couch is a projected starter for 2012, Lanier is academically ineligible and Moore is fighting to be in the mix as a safety or nickel back in the secondary.
Starting tight end Mychal Rivera was a JUCO find in 2010, as were defensive tackle John Brown and defensive back Dave Clark — neither of whom qualified to play at UT.
A small level of reliability on junior college players seems to be part of Dooley’s recruiting plan for the near future. Two more Hutchinson players — linebacker D’Vondre Campbell and defensive tackle Ben Bradley — are committed in the 2013 recruiting class.
"Just philosophically, and I said this last year, we are not going to build this program on junior college players, and that is not a knock on junior college players,” Dooley said after signing Patterson, McCullers and Sentimore in February. “What we will do is every year try to sign a few to try to address a need.”
In the hyper-competitive SEC, every need must be addressed. Dooley and the Vols are gambling that the latest batch can do just that.