They signed with Phillip Fulmer, played as youngsters under Lane Kiffin and came of age under Derek Dooley.
Today, eight players remain from Tennessee’s 2008 signing class, a remarkable total given the tumultuous years they have endured.
Willie Bohannon, Dallas Thomas, Carson Anderson, Ben Bartholomew, Herman Lathers, Rod Wilks, Steven Fowlkes and Prentiss Waggner are now fifth-year seniors. Some are stars. Some will be role players. A few have had only limited on-field contributions.
But Lathers said the group can take pride in making it to the finish line of their college careers.
“I remember all of us coming in together, and we’ve been through all the struggles and coaching changes,” Lathers said. “Through it all, we stuck together and leaned on each other and picked each other up when we needed to be picked up.”
Now the only question for the 2008 class is how their story will end.
“We can turn it around,” Bohannon said. “We have a chance to be the senior group that started University of Tennessee’s comeback, and that makes me feel really good. It doesn’t matter if I come off the bench, it doesn’t matter if I never start this season. Just to be a part of it is important to me.”
The 18-player 2008 signing class was not especially well-regarded, falling outside the top 25 in national recruiting rankings. None of the remaining players were ranked better than a three-star prospect, according to Rivals or Scout.
One signee, defensive lineman Marlon Walls, failed to qualify but later re-signed with UT after a stint at Hargrave Military. Including Walls, 50 percent of the class is still with the program nearly five years later.
The group has seen not only different head coaches, but a revolving door of position coaches, coordinators and even strength coaches.
“It’d probably take a while (to name them all),” Lathers said. “I had a good relationship with them all. College football is a business. Coaches are going to come and go. I learned that early.”
Dooley said he appreciated the players who weathered the storm.
“Those guys obviously believe in Tennessee and appreciate all that Tennessee’s given to them, despite all the change that’s happened,” Dooley said.
Of the group, only a handful have been consistent contributors. Thomas has started 25 consecutive games at offensive tackle. Bartholomew emerged as the starting fullback in 2011. Waggner, a defensive back, hasn’t missed a game in his career.
Others are hoping for a strong senior finish. Bohannon had a career-high 27 tackles in 2011 but is adjusting to a new linebacker role in Sal Sunseri’s 3-4 defense. Wilks, a defensive back, was one of the Vols’ top special teams players last year. Fowlkes didn’t play last year due to academics, but is fighting for serious playing time on the defensive line.
“We have a good group of leaders on this team,” Waggner said. “We talk about it all the time. We want to be the group of seniors and the team that brings Tennessee back and puts Tennessee back on that pedestal that everyone is used to seeing.”
A strong season would be the perfect ending to an unusual career, but Lathers said he has no regrets no matter how the story unfolds.
“It’s been a struggle, but if we had to go back and change anything, we wouldn’t change a thing,” he said. “It’s made us who we are today. It’s a good group, and I’m proud to say I came with them.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.