Tennessee fans have several obvious reasons to be encouraged about the upcoming football season: 20 starters return, the schedule is easier than last season's, and Kentucky wide receiver/quarterback Matt Roark has graduated.
Fans also have a not-so-obvious reason to be more optimistic: junior college recruiting.
It might not show up in a listing of the program's assets. But just because it doesn't have the sudden impact of a 100,000-plus-seat stadium, it shouldn't be overlooked — especially if you are revisiting the 1990s or envisioning a better tomorrow after back-to-back 6-7 seasons.
Third-year UT coach Derek Dooley hasn't based his rebuilding program heavily on junior college recruits. He has used them to help revitalize a badly depleted roster.
"The reality is we don't sign junior college kids to develop them," he said. "We're signing all of those guys to help us win the first game."
Khambrel Garland can't help UT win its first game this season. He could help the Vols in 2013 if he so chooses. The defensive back from Arizona Western visited UT this week and said he has been offered a scholarship.
You would assume the Vols tried to sell him on their tradition. They also might have mentioned that junior college transfers are a part of their tradition.
The 1990s are best remembered by UT fans for Phillip Fulmer finishing what Johnny Majors started; for Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning, Tee Martin and Al Wilson; for depth charts stacked with future NFL running backs.
One of those running backs was a junior college transfer. Charlie Garner, who once rushed for 430 yards in a single game on behalf of Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College, later led the Vols in rushing in 1992 and 1993 on his way to the NFL.
All-American safety Dale Carter carried UT's junior college banner before Garner. Another junior college transfer, defensive end Chris Mims, made first-team All-SEC in 1991.
A few years later,
Leonard Little arrived with high expectations and promptly lived up to them. The junior college defensive end made first-team All-American in 1997 and twice made first-team All-SEC.
In the early 2000s, junior college transfers continued their contributions to UT football. Aubrayo Franklin started at defensive tackle in 2002 alongside another junior college transfer, end Demetrin Veal.
That same year, junior college recruits (and future pros) Gibril Wilson and Julian Battle started in UT's secondary. Battle made first-team All-SEC. Two years later, junior college defensive tackle Jesse Mahelona made All-American.
In the last 15 years, more than half of UT's junior college signees have started at least one season. The track record is worth noting in light of the post-spring starting lineup, which included four former junior college players — tight end Mychal Rivera, defensive tackle Maurice Couch, safety Byron Moore and defensive end Darrington Sentimore.
Sentimore earned a starting position after enrolling at UT in January. He was joined this summer by another junior college signee, massive defensive tackle Daniel McCullers. Next, the Vols await the July enrollment of their most celebrated signee, wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.
Patterson supposedly has the physical attributes — specifically size and speed — to succeed at the college level. There are no guarantees for a successful transition, though.
"If you look at historical data, what's the percentage of guys meeting their expectations coming out of junior college?" Dooley said. "It's probably less than half."
But recent history and the depth chart prove the odds are better at UT.