A photograph that surfaced Friday captures the crux of the NCAA’s ongoing investigation into Tennessee’s alleged misuse of recruiting hostess.
The picture, taken by SI.com reporter Andy Staples, provides identification of the two hostesses who traveled nearly 200 miles to Duncan, S.C., on Sept. 25 to watch UT commitments Brandon Willis and Corey Miller of Byrnes High School play in a football game against Gaffney.
The UT hostesses in the photo have been identified as Lacey Earps and Dahra Johnson. Both are members of the Orange Pride, a group mostly comprised of female students and responsible for entertaining recruits on campus visits, among other duties. Earps is listed as captain of Orange Pride.
Attempts to reach Earps and Johnson on Friday were unsuccessful.
UT assistant athletic director for public relations Tiffany Carpenter declined to comment.
A Twitter account belonging to Earps no longer was available Friday, but her Myspace page still existed. Johnson’s Facebook page was still active.
If they attended the game as members of Orange Pride it would be a violation of NCAA rules since they are considered UT representatives and must adhere to the same standards and limitations of contact with prospects as football coaches.
The severity of the violation is dependent upon whether or not the hostesses were directed to attend the game by UT’s football department.
If the two attended the game on their own volition, the transgression would likely be considered a secondary violation.
The picture, which was taken on the field after the game, shows Earps and Johnson posing with Miller and Willis.
The picture provides visual proof of the News Sentinel’s report on Wednesday that neither girl was dressed in UT apparel or holding a sign that said “Come to Tennessee” as The New York Times first reported.
Johnson is wearing a blue dress. Earps is wearing a dark orange outfit.
The two are holding a poster board sign that reads “Miller and Willis have our hearts …” The word “hearts” is written in orange. The other words are written in a variety of colors.
Charles Miller, the father of Corey Miller, told the News Sentinel on Wednesday that “nobody put these girls on these boys” and maintained Earps and Johnson came as fans, not UT representatives.
Charles Miller said his son and Willis “became friends” with Earps and Johnson when they visited UT’s campus in June.
UT athletic director Mike Hamilton has acknowledged an NCAA investigation, but technically the Vols have not received an official letter of inquiry, which would detail what the NCAA would be looking at specifically.
UT coach Lane Kiffin said Thursday he was not aware of any recruiting violations involving his staff.
The NCAA was in Suwanee, Ga., at North Gwinnett High on Thursday to interview offensive linemen Ja’Wuan James and Austin Shepherd about their relationship with Orange Pride. James is committed to UT. Shepherd is committed to Alabama.
Staples said that he didn’t have access to his camera until Friday, which is why the picture didn’t surface until two days after the initial report.
“I attended the Byrnes game between covering the South Carolina-Ole Miss game Sept. 24 in Columbia, S.C., and the Alabama-Arkansas game Sept. 26 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.,” Staples explained in his story. “The following week, Byrnes was set to play Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in a matchup of the No. 1 and No. 2 high school teams in the nation, and I had been assigned to gather material for an advance story. After watching Miller and Willis dominate that night, I interviewed them and took several pictures, hoping to get a usable headshot that could run with any future story. One of the photos happened to be of the players with the hostesses. I did not know who the women were at the time, and did not put two and two together until the Times published its story.”
The two players verbally committed to UT before the hostesses traveled to watch them play. Miller and Willis committed to UT over dozens of scholarship offers. Both are considered two of the top 100 prospects in the nation.
Read more at SI.com.