For Knoxville native Jocquez Bruce, where he would attend college after high school was never really a matter of question.
When Bruce, a 5-11, 165-lb. (soaking wet) athlete from South Doyle High School, received a scholarship offer from the University of Tennessee, he jumped on it.
Bruce wasn’t highly rated. Rivals.com gave him 3-stars, but ranked him as just the 26th-best prospect in the state in the 2015 class. He didn’t catch the eye of a lot of schools; his only other scholarship offer from an FBS school was Memphis.
But it didn’t matter, because he was playing for the hometown Vols, an accomplishment most football players who grow up in East Tennessee can only dream of.
Bruce was so determined to play for Tennessee that he agreed to blueshirt — an NCAA recruiting loophole that allows teams to grant scholarships to walk-on players, in a sense. It is a method pioneered by New Mexico State. Essentially, players who were not officially recruited — did not visit campus and did not receive an in-home visit from a coach — can enroll and be granted a scholarship at the beginning of fall practice, but won’t count against that year’s scholarship allotment that is enforced by the NCAA.
By blueshirting, Bruce was not counted among the Vols’ Top 5 recruiting class in February. Instead, he was to have counted against the 2016 class — meaning the Vols could take one less recruit on signing day in February 2016.
Either way, Bruce’s status with the UT program was essentially the same.
Until his Tennessee playing career ended before it had even begun.
Last week, Tennessee announced that Joc Bruce was leaving the program — just days after head coach Butch Jones said that he had been suspended for not applying himself off the field. Bruce tweeted later that the suspension was because he was late for class. But a day later, he was no longer a Vol.
“Coach Jones and I have talked and have together decided that this is what is best for me at this time,” Bruce said in a statement.
It didn’t take long before the message boards were aflutter with speculation about exactly what Bruce’s sudden departure meant. And many fans settled on a single theory: Jones was doing some housecleaning to open space for more recruits next year.
And that’s all it is, of course: speculation. But it makes sense. You don’t cut a player from the program for being late to class — assuming Bruce’s tweet was honest. Several players on the Vols’ current roster have committed offenses more serious than that and they’re in good standing. But they’re also players who are more likely to contribute on the field this season and in seasons to come.
Of course, there is other speculation, as well — speculation that lays the groundwork for the theory that Bruce decided to leave the program completely of his own accord. So, the theory that Butch Jones encouraged him to leave to free up some room on the roster may be nothing but pure dung.
Meanwhile . . .
Fast-forward a week, and today Kyle Oliver — another homegrown freshman-to-be — left the program. Oliver, a tight end from Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, was also rated 3-stars by Rivals, and was the No. 14 prospect overall from the state in the 2015 class.
Oliver’s offer list was more impressive than Bruce’s; he had offers from Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the SEC, along with a number of other schools (Louisville being the only Power 5 school outside the SEC). But, like Bruce, it was questionable whether he would ever be a major contributor for the Vols.
And, like Bruce, Oliver was a blueshirt — meaning his departure frees up another scholarship for 2016.
There may not be fire behind that smoke . . . but there’s lots of smoke.
This is a practice that’s new to Tennessee, if in fact it’s a practice that has been deployed by Jones, but it’s certainly not new to the SEC. Nick Saban perfected the science of over-recruiting, then weeding out scholarship players who weren’t beneficial to his program in order to fall under the NCAA’s mandated numbers. He’s been criticized for forcing players into claiming medical hardships after being injured and essentially cutting players for no reason. Saban doesn’t care; he’s won three national championships at Alabama. And Crimson Tide fans certainly don’t care.
So if Jones is taking a page from Saban’s playbook, what of it? Is it fair? Ethical? It’s certainly not illegal by NCAA and SEC standards; not yet, anyway. But it does represent a new era of win-at-all-costs standards that’s becoming blatant throughout college football. This sport has been big business for many years, but it’s become especially cutthroat as TV and apparel contracts have increased pressure on schools to win and as fans have become less willing to settle for an average product on the field.
The majority of Tennessee fans won’t have a problem with such a move. They’ll say that if you’re going to beat Saban, you have to play on his level. Others will admit that they don’t like it, but it’s an unfortunate necessity in this modern era of college athletics.
Count me among an even smaller number — those who don’t like it and would like to see the rules changed to prevent it. I get why a coach like Butch Jones would employ such tactics . . . and I get why it can even be considered a necessity. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I’m just naive enough to believe that student-athletes should still be just that — students first, athletes second — and that college should still be about academics. And that a contract between a school and a player should still mean something.
Ironically, the SEC has imposed stricter recruiting standards on its schools than the NCAA mandates, in an effort to protect the players. When he proposed the new standards, former SEC commissioner Mike Slive said, “No one wants to win more than I do. But you don’t want to win at the expense of young people. You want to win for them.” As it turns out, his standards are increasing the need — or at least the perception of a need — for schools to do the very thing he tried to avoid. In order to meet the SEC’s recruiting guidelines, students have to take bullets for their teams. Alabama does it on a regular basis. Has Tennessee joined in? If so, you can bet on one thing: Tennessee isn’t the only program to have joined in, and the Vols certainly won’t be the last.