KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's current senior class was billed as the group that would end the program's run of mediocrity and lead the Volunteers back to Southeastern Conference championship contention.
Four seasons later, Tennessee is at risk of going winless in SEC play for the first time ever and only a fraction of that class remains.
Twelve of the 32 players who signed with Tennessee in 2014 are still with the Volunteers (4-7, 0-7 SEC) heading into their regular-season finale Saturday against Vanderbilt (4-7, 0-7). Seventeen members of that 2014 class left with eligibility remaining.
"We came in with a lot of guys and aren't leaving here with that many," offensive lineman Jashon Robertson said. "There's been a lot of adversity along the way."
"We were really close before we even got on campus," senior tight end Ethan Wolf said. "We had a group chat, we always came on visits together. And our main goal was to bring Tennessee back to where it belongs. I think we did a pretty good job of that in the first three years of all our careers here."
The class helped Tennessee win bowl games each of the last three seasons. But it all fell apart this year, eventually leading to the Nov. 12 firing of coach Butch Jones .
Tennessee is at risk of its first eight-loss season in school history. All the early exits from that 2014 class created depth issues when injuries decimated Tennessee's roster.
The list of 17 players to leave early includes Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett and Cincinnati Bengals receiver Josh Malone, who entered the draft after successful three-year college careers. Barnett set Tennessee's career sacks record and Malone was the Vols' leading receiver last season.
They were the only two from those 17 who went directly from Tennessee to the NFL.
Some of the others left for disciplinary reasons, but many transferred. The most notable transfer was Jalen Hurd, who was 440 yards shy of the school's career rushing record when he left midway through his junior season . Hurd will play wide receiver for Baylor next year.
"It's kind of a crazy reality," Robertson said. "When we got here, there weren't that many seniors and we used to talk to the older guys about who used to be here and maybe why so many guys leave, whatever it is. We basically attributed that to maybe things that were going on in the past. Maybe we were naive in thinking it wouldn't happen to our class."
Seven players from that 2014 class started at least five games this season: Robertson, Wolf, defensive back Rashaan Gaulden, linebacker Colton Jumper, kicker Aaron Medley, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley and offensive lineman Coleman Thomas. Jumper technically wasn't counted as part of the 32-man recruiting class that year because he enrolled as a walk-on.
Gaulden and reserve linebacker Dillon Bates are 2014 recruits who redshirted one year and therefore could play for Tennessee next season. Two more players from that class — safety Todd Kelly Jr. and linebacker Cortez McDowell — sustained season-ending injuries in September and also could come back next year.
Barton Simmons, the scouting director of 247Sports, said the number of transfers from this class is "on the high end" but "not unheard of." Simmons acknowledges the disappointing finish but believes the class made a positive impact overall.
"I do think they accomplished a lot," Simmons said. "I think they really got the program headed in the right direction. Just the simple fact that class came together and created the sort of momentum that they did, I think, was huge for the University of Tennessee."
Mike Farrell, the director of recruiting at Rivals, isn't as forgiving. Farrell calls the class a "colossal failure" based on this season. Farrell said most of the players played "probably a star below what their ranking was," which hindered the class more than the transfers.
"I don't think this is the fault of the players as much as it's the fault of the coaches," Farrell said. "One of the things Butch Jones can be criticized for is player development. That was probably his biggest weakness."
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