Bryce Brown is part of an ongoing NCAA investigation to confirm the Tennessee tailback’s amateur status, head coach Lane Kiffin revealed on Tuesday.
Kiffin said Brown is eligible but said he doesn’t know if Brown will be eligible for UT’s season opener against Western Kentucky on Sept. 5.
“They can rule whenever they want,” a visibly frustrated Kiffin said following practice.
At question is money raised for Brown and other players to attend football camps while Brown was a sophomore at Wichita (Kan.) East High School, Kiffin said. The investigation has been ongoing since at least February.
Tennessee’s recruitment of Brown is not part of the investigation, Kiffin said. Neither is the recruitment from any other school.
“I think it’s a gigantic distraction,” Kiffin said of the amateurism issue.
Kiffin said the practice of raising money for high school players to attend camps is common. Kiffin said five or six other high school players also were involved with the fund raising.
“None of them are dealing with this but him,” Kiffin said.
Kiffin seemed to be alluding to Brown’s superstar-like status in recruiting circles as reason why he may be a target.
This isn’t the first time that someone close to Brown has made that claim nor is it the first time Brown has been part of an NCAA investigation.
Brown’s advisor throughout the recruiting process, Brian Butler, also cited Brown’s popularity when his relationship with Brown was questioned in February.
“I’m definitely disappointed, but I’m not surprised,” Butler told the Wichita Eagle. “Bryce is the No. 1 player in the country. They just want to make sure everything is on the up and up. That’s not a problem.”
Brown was one of the most talked-about prospects in the nation when he signed with UT over Clemson, LSU, Missouri, Oregon and Miami in March, more than a month after National Signing Day in February.
Brown and Butler were even featured in the New York Times in the midst of the NCAA investigation.
“If the NCAA comes, then I’ll give them any information they want that’s available,” Butler told the Times.
Butler drew the ire of the NCAA when he charged fans to read updates about prospects, including Brown, on his Web site. Butler stopped charging for the updates soon after the NCAA stepped in.
It is unclear how involved Butler may be in the current investigation.
Brown, who moved to Knoxville a month before enrolling at UT in June, has another issue to deal with before he gets back on the field. The 6-foot, 215-pounder was sidelined Monday with a hip injury.
Brown returned to the field in full pads Tuesday but did not participate in practice, instead riding a recumbent bike on the sideline. Kiffin said an MRI performed Tuesday was clear.
“We think he’s going to be OK,” Kiffin said, referring to the hip injury. “We think he’ll be able to do some stuff (Wednesday). He couldn’t do anything today. His hip was pretty tight.”
The timing couldn’t have been worse, Kiffin said, as Brown was beginning to establish himself in UT’s tailback rotation. Kiffin said Brown’s last four practices were his best as a Vol.
“He had a great scrimmage and then we continue to get news that the NCAA is continuing to investigate him and his whole history going back to when he was young,” Kiffin said. “I know that that bothers him. It’s pretty unfortunate.”
Brown capped the strong four-practice string with 57 yards on 10 carries and 27 yards on three receptions in Saturday’s scrimmage. The performance was even more impressive when Kiffin reviewed the practice tape.
“He didn’t have very many big holes when he was running,” Kiffin said. “He made a lot out of a little. He was extremely physical — extremely great mentality out there. You saw him run people over and pop right up.”
Kiffin said he was so excited that he texted Brown late Saturday night after the scrimmage.
“(I) told him that he was really going on the right track and he was really going to be special,” Kiffin said, recalling his text.
Kiffin said he expects Brown to return from the hip injury soon. The Vols have Wednesday off before returning to practice Thursday and Friday. UT’s scrimmage Saturday is considered the most important of preseason camp.
“He’s a competitor,” Kiffin said of Brown. “He’ll be back out there.”
Brown isn’t available for interviews as per UT’s media policy on freshmen. Kiffin, however, made an impromptu defense on his star player’s behalf — just in case the NCAA might be listening.
“He’s a great kid,” Kiffin said. “He had a 3.6 (grade-point average) in high school and graduated early. I think he has a 3.7 here so far.
“It’s very upsetting for him and for all of us.”