Tennessee under investigation for recruiting violations, players now transferring away
Whispers about the collapse of the Tennessee program cropped up a few weeks ago. It was the usual chatter of breaking recruiting violations and the like, but there was not much substantial evidence at the time, so there was not much reason to do or say anything drastic. As the saying goes, though, where there is smoke, there is fire. And there sure was a fire in Knoxville.
After weeks of ambiguity, it came to light that on the Dan Patrick Show that Tennessee had been paying recruits during their visits. Surely there are endless ways to do this, but the Vols’ bag men were McDonalds bag men. Recruits were handed McDonalds bags filled with money, which feels about as incognito as throwing on a fake mustache and glasses and calling that a disguise.
It’s not even clear if these bag men were handing out these money bags at literal McDonald's locations with the recruits, i.e. over the counter, or just handing them out wherever they met. Either way, it’s clear the Tennessee program got “sloppy,” as Patrick called it, with the recruiting tactics. In all reality, every major program is committing these same violations in some form or another, the Vols are just paying for being the worst and dumbest at doing it.
With the investigation looming, Tennessee fired HC Jeremy Pruitt and promoted defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who was hired just two weeks ago, to interim head coach. Athletic director Phillip Fulmer also decided not to bother with the transition from this era and opted for retirement, throwing this whole mess into someone else’s lap.
With so much leadership out the door and NCAA restrictions surely on the way, it makes sense that some of Tennessee’s players would want to bail on the program for better opportunities, and many already have. Four players entered the transfer portal on Wednesday alone. Running back Eric Gray, linebacker Henry To’o To’o, linebacker Quavaris Crouch, and offensive linemen Jahmir Johnson all entered the portal together just one day after Pruitt’s firing. All of them are significant players for the program — or, were.
Gray was the team’s starting running back and took 157 carries for 772 yards and four touchdowns in 2020. To’o and Crouch ranked first and third, respectively, in tackles for the Vols defense, and both did so as just sophomores. Johnson, perhaps the “least” detrimental loss for the Vols, still started five games at left tackle in 2020 after years of being a solid sixth-man at both guard and tackle.
This will probably not be the end of the mass exodus out of Tennessee, either. A handful of players already left earlier in the offseason (though it’s not clear if it had to do with this investigation), while others are sure to follow as they see how dire the situation in Knoxville has become. Perhaps the right hire could get certain players to return or not enter the portal at all, but that is to be seen.
Ohio State's Chris Olave and Jeremy Ruckert returning to school
Ohio State’s obvious NFL Draft star, quarterback Justin Fields, left school early for the pros. Everyone already had this one written down in pen as a foregone conclusion. The Buckeyes had a handful of other offensive names primed for NFL Draft hype, though, were they to declare.
Wide receiver Chris Olave and tight end Jeremy Ruckert could have each gone as high as the top-100, particularly Olave. Alas, it will be another year before either player makes their leap to the pros. Both Olave and Ruckert will be playing with Buckeye helmet stickers again in 2021.
Olave has plenty to gain by returning to school, but would have been the better off of the two to enter the NFL Draft now. The 6-foot-1, 188-pound receiver is coming off 50 catches for 729 yards and seven touchdowns in just seven games this season. Not only did he finish the season leading the Buckeyes in all three categories, but it was Olave who stepped up big time to help Fields in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson. Olave earned just over 130 yards and two scores in that game alone, propelling Ohio State to their first title game since the Cardale Jones / Ezekiel Elliott days.
Perhaps Olave is going back to prove he can be elite at something. While very productive and well-rounded, Olave does not exactly have a trump card. Olave checks off a lot of “adequate-to-good” boxes, but does not have any one trait that screams you have to draft him high. The best argument Olave has right now is that he fares well in contested catch situations, especially for his size, but a 188-pound receiver probably needs more than that. Perhaps with a pinch of extra explosiveness and further development as a route runner, Olave can bloom into a clear first-rounder.
Ruckert, on the other hand, is likely aiming to show he can be more than just a blocker and a red zone threat. At 6-foot-5, 253-pounds, Ruckert is the perfect size for a traditional in-line Y tight end. His blocking on all kinds of concepts, whether he needs to be an insert on lead zone, a kick out on power, or a splitter on split zone, is light outs. He also does well to use his size and ultra-reliable hands to work short zones and the red zone. That said, Ruckert is not a particularly daunting athletic matchup in space. How much better and smoother of an athlete Ruckert can become is tough to say, but that should be the primary goal for him in 2021.
Larry Scott stepping down as PAC-12 commissioner
The Larry Scott era in the PAC-12 is finally over. Scott served as the PAC-12 commissioner for 11 years, starting in 2009 after having previously served as the head of the Women's Tennis Association.
The conference expansion followed shortly thereafter Scott's hiring, with the additions of Colorado and Utah in 2011. It's hard to make the case that those additions are why the conference has slipped, especially since Utah has often been quite competitive since then, but that's around the time the conference started to slip from the national spotlight, save for a few magical seasons from Oregon. For years, many lamented that Scott's hold over the PAC-12 played a part in the conference's struggles to match the national attention of other conferences such as the Big Ten and the SEC. Some of had to do with lackluster TV deals, some of it with branding, but it felt like no matter what Scott did, the conference just could not regain it's glory from when the conference was the PAC-10.
Either way, Scott is out the door. He will hold the commissioner position through June while the conference looks for his replacement, but it's unlikely he makes any major changes between now and then.
Bill O’Brien hired as new OC at Alabama
The jokes about Alabama being a career-revival factory continue to write themselves. After taking control of and subsequently tanking the Houston Texans roster over the past couple years, Bill O’Brien is headed back to the college ranks to call plays for the Crimson Tide.
O’Brien follows in the footsteps Steve Sarkisian, who was wrongly chastised for his work with the Atlanta Falcons in 2017 and 2018, and Lane Kiffin, famously known for being left on the tarmac when he got fired by USC before revolutionizing the Alabama offense from 2014 to 2016. In terms of the magnitude at which a career needs to be revived, O’Brien probably lands somewhere between the two, with Sark being a moderate case and Kiffin requiring a more extreme reputation overhaul.
The degree to which O’Brien needs his career turned around matters little, though. It will happen with the bare minimum of effort required to put together a semi competent offense. And, to be fair to O’Brien, his offenses in Houston, while flawed, were often more hamstrung by his personnel decisions than his scheme and play-calling. With the former no longer in his control and not a foreseeable issue given Alabama’s talent, O’Brien should be more than fine at keeping the Alabama offensive machine rolling.