A little more than a year ago, Brunswick, Ga. cornerback Justin Coleman chose Tennessee over Kentucky in a small press conference at his high school to little fanfare.
Many Vols fans had never even heard of him. Precious few -- if any -- recruiting stories profiling the 5-foot-10, 185-pound defensive back had even graced the pages of the paysites. It initially seemed he'd be a Wildcat because, after all, we poor fools who follow recruiting religiously usually know that a commitment is at least on our team's radar before it happens.
That wasn't the case with Coleman, a three-star player whose pledge to UT was met with a resounding, "Who?"
Flash forward to the Orange & White Game where Coleman -- an early enrollee who wound up a four-star fresh off one of the most impressive individual seasons in the loaded state of Georgia -- shined after just 15 practices. Now, after the first scrimmage of the fall, Coleman remains a player whose name is mentioned as much as anybody in a crowded secondary. He finished Tuesday's simulated game with an interception and is still listed as a co-starter at one of UT's cornerback spots.
Simply, Coleman was a scouting gem found by UT coach Derek Dooley and recruiting coordinator Terry Joseph, a quality kid who has great instincts, played all over the field for a little-known high school and who was able to come in early and go through a spring practice before many of his classmates.
"Justin Coleman is a great athlete," Dooley has said in the past week. "A great player we can use this year ..."
Getting "usable" players is something Dooley has thrived at over the course of his two years of recruiting at UT. But that doesn't mean they've always been the highest-rated. As a result, many of UT's fans are disgruntled and question his recruiting methods simply by looking at the rankings of ratings services.
Additionally, Dooley's meticulous process of getting to know players, having them visit Knoxville multiple times and doing extensive evaluations of prospects has weeded out some of the top-tier players who may have been interested in UT. It also has cut down on decommitments, however. Not a single player who has committed to Dooley publicly over the past two years has gone elsewhere when offered by other schools.
As a fan, it may be frustrating when you see that it's maybe May or June prior to a National Signing Day before we offer somebody who has offers from virtually all the top programs in the country already. That reared its head last year with longtime UT tight end commitment and longtime Vols fan Eric MacLain, who never really felt the love from Dooley and wound up committing and sticking with Clemson. It's happened with multiple prospects just seemingly waiting on UT offers since.
The timing aspect, wrote Dave Hooker of ESPN recently, hurts UT with some players
The wait-and-see approach used by some programs like Tennessee can turn into a wait-and-oh-he's-gone result despite a coach's best intentions.
Dooley's methods in that regard can be maddening to some fans like myself who follow recruiting. I've even questioned before why he doesn't target the higher quality players earlier and move on to the "foundation kids" after he's turned down by some of the best players in the country. Instead, Dooley has tended to get the basis of the class early before going after some bigger names late.
What isn't debatable, however, is the fact that his players are getting into school and producing once they're here. Is that because of the lack of depth currently at Tennessee dictates that pretty much any decent prospect will get immediate playing time? Maybe. But the fact of the matter is UT's past two recruiting classes are full of kids who've contributed immediately or look like they will be able to, and that bodes well for the future.
A quick look at the past three recruiting classes will show you these numbers:
- By my count, of the 2009 class of 22 [I'm crediting all of these kids to Lane Kiffin, though a few of them did commit to the Phillip Fulmer staff] and the 13 kids who committed to Kiffin out of the 2010 class, 14 are either already gone from UT or never made it in.
- Consequently, out of the 13 Dooley-signed players in the 2010 class and last year's class of 27, only Dave Clark and Eddrick Loften failed to make it in.
That's 21 out of 35 Kiffin recruits remaining at UT and 38 out of 40 Dooley recruits.
The Vols have gone from a team that could barely put 11 men on the field at a time to a team that could have 13 out there [ahem, a little levity here...]
Even more impressive for Dooley is how many kids played last season for UT and played well. Again, part of the reason is because they HAD to play, and I understand that, but it doesn't change the fact that they had glimpses of quality play. Out of that 2010 class, only Nash Nance, Ted Meline, Martaze Jackson and Greg Clark failed to see the field.
Some of the freshmen who were recruited by Dooley -- or recruited by Kiffin but coached up by the Dooley staff -- even shined. Tyler Bray showed his potential against the weak part of the schedule. Channing Fugate was the starting fullback by the end of the season. Zach Fulton, Ja'Wuan James and James Stone all started at times. Justin Hunter became an electrifying weapon. Da'Rick Rogers and Jacques Smith looked elite at times. Raijon Neal, Michael Palardy, John Propst, Mychal Rivera all got quality snaps.
Some of those were diamond-in-the-rough finds like Hoover linebacker Propst, who had few solid offers, two-star Dontavis Sapp, who should contribute at linebacker as a sophomore this season and, perhaps most importantly, former minor league baseball player and walk-on safety Brent Brewer, who has developed into one of UT's most important players and better athletes.
We certainly have a very diligent evaluation process. We’re not always right. But we have a defined criteria of what we want in our program. Historically that hasn’t been a lot of players in the state of Tennessee, but I am proud that we signed seven last year out of the state.
Sometimes who we recruit and who we want, who people think we’re recruiting and who people think we want are not necessarily people who we recruit and people who we want.
We’ve done our best to keep the guys in the state who we think can help our program. And I think it’s important to sell what Tennessee can do for those guys that the other schools cannot do. There is value of being an in-state guy and going to your state institution. I think what we’ve done has worked tremendously well. Certainly the guys we signed last year out of the state we hope will be great players for us in the future.
Simply put, Dooley doesn't care about our stinking player evaluations, and he cares about those of 247 Sports, Rivals, Scout, etc., the same. He trusts his evaluations, and really, who are we to argue right now?
Thus far in camp, it seems there aren't enough good things to say about several of 2011's commitments. The freshman linebacker trio of Curt Maggitt, AJ Johnson and Christian Harris is getting about as much praise as I've ever heard Dooley save for anybody. We've already discussed Coleman, and junior-college cornerback counterpart Izauea Lanier is also in line to get major reps along with Byron Moore and Brian Randolph. Big Maurice Couch is getting better at defensive tackle with every practice.
Offensively, everybody is buzzing about running back Marlin Lane. Quarterback Justin Worley is gushed about by coaches for his commitment to the film room and practice. DeAnthony Arnett and Vincent Dallas are solidly in the wide receiver rotation. Cameron Clear is physically ready to play tight end. Antonio Richardson, Marcus Jackson and Kyler Kerbyson may battle for playing time on the offensive line that is returning four starters and seems loaded.
The list goes on and on.
This year's current class is even rated lower than last year's was at this time. And you're worried? Really? By now, you don't think these coaches know what they're looking for and what they need to fit not only their system but to stay in school for three or four years?
We all went on and on and on about how great a recruiter Kiffin was and how he was going to turn UT around quicker than anybody. Yet, two years into his classes' UT careers, where are they? Meanwhile, Dooley's kids are sticking around, making good grades, staying out of [major] trouble and looking like they'll be able to continue taking steps toward making Tennessee a successful program again.
Can Dooley recruit well enough to consistently win in the SEC? The answer to that question remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: At least they'll be around long enough to find out.