One of the things that was equal parts productive and maddening about former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley's recruiting tactics was the meticulous, methodical approach he took to it.
In several cases, Dooley's reluctance to offer top-tier prospects until later in the process because he wanted to evaluate them further cost UT in getting an upper hand in their recruitment. Other times, the Vols had some success identifying players in camp settings that other premiere teams would offer late. Most of the time, when Tennessee secured a commitment from a player, that player stuck with his pledge for several reasons:
He'd likely either visited the school or with the coaches multiple times, he'd been thoroughly evaluated to the point of feeling confident and comfortable around Dooley and the coaching staff, or he felt the love early when coaches gave him an offer prior to him coming onto other teams' radars.
That scientific approach to recruiting didn't always work; several players felt UT waited too late to offer them. But it actually may help with this year's class now that Dooley will not be retained for another season.
First of all, let's face it: This recruiting class isn't going to knock any socks off. It's currently ranked between 20 and 30 on most sites. One of the few four-star players -- safety Kameron Miles -- decommitted from Dooley and UT and committed to upstart Texas A&M last week. There is a prevailing thought that while Memphis defensive end Jason Carr's brother already attends UT, he's intrigued with playing alongside Robert Nkemdiche at Ole Miss, and the Rebels may get him to flip.
Still other players such as linebacker Colton Goeas, defensive tackle Ben Bradley and offensive lineman Dan Skipper are considering looking around. But, believe it or not, those guys don't seem too shaken by Dooley's ouster. They're more concerned about position coaches. For instance, Bradley is going to take all his visits and wants to know what's going to happen with his main recruiter, Darin Hinshaw, and former coach -- graduate assistant Brandon Staley -- before making an ultimate decision. Skipper pretty much has indicated if Sam Pittman is retained, he'll be on his way.
But that pretty much seems like it's it when it comes to potential defections. Four-star wide receiver Paul Harris has tweeted he's a Vol For Life. Offensive lineman Austin Sanders is a UT lifer and isn't going anywhere. Dominic Zanca, Corey Vereen, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Zach Barnes, Brett Kendrick, Chauntez Jackson, Joe Sanders and Josh Smith -- among others -- have pledged their loyalty to the university.
That's something that Dooley stressed during recruiting -- making a commitment and becoming a Vol For Life and just what "committing" meant. That's why it was such a stunner when Dalton Santos and Otha Peters decommitted late in last year's recruiting process ... two huge needs who left the Vols in a lurch. The reason it was such major news was because we needed them, but also because Dooley just hadn't "lost" any commitments. It seems this year, those players who committed to play for the University of Tennessee -- for the most part -- are still coming if the new staff elects to keep them in the fold.
That's both good news and something interesting to watch during the naming of the new head coach. Regardless of the hire, UT will need a core of committed prospects to combat the regular attrition that comes from losing any coach and to make up for the losses that will inevitably come from prospects' courtships with other programs. While we're not going to call names or speculate on anything or anyone, there were some players in this recruiting class who made fans scratch their heads a little. Will all of them be retained? That's also something to look for.
Finally -- and we have to discuss this [and frankly hope for it] -- if the Vols hire a rock star coach, a bunch of top-tier prospects could emerge on the horizon for this recruiting class. Four-star linebacker E.J. Levenberry was a huge Vols lean a year or so ago, then something happened in the recruiting process with Dooley that made him drop UT altogether. Apparently, he wasn't feeling the love from Sal Sunseri. When news of Dooley's firing reached him Sunday, he basically said he'd consider UT again though he's committed to Florida State.
Whether or not this is accurate or if he'd even really be wanted by the new staff, elite four-star running back/slot receiver Alvin Kamara -- UT wide receiver/tight end Jason Croom's former high school teammate at Norcross (Ga.) HS -- tweeted that if the Vols could land Jon Gruden, he'd join Croom in Knoxville. Several recruiting analysts are on the record saying if Gruden came to UT, he'd be a game-changer in recruiting.
So, where does that the Vols? Much like everything else, recruiting is somewhat up in the air right now. My advice to everyone who loves recruiting is to not even follow it at all until a new coach is hired. Our class may change 10-12 times between now and National Signing Day.
But one thing is certain and it's evident by looking at this year's recruiting class: Dooley had lost the trust of the top-tier prospects in the country. The Vols were having to reach on far too many players, and there was little chance that Tennessee was going to close strong. Though UT was in the thick of the race for stars like Vonn Bell, Reeve Kohler, Toby Johnson, MarQuez North and Derrick Green, the Vols seemed to be slipping with most of those guys. Dooley did the work to establish the relationships, and the right coach could close the deal on some of those guys.
In my opinion, if UT takes care of business and makes a quality hire, this recruiting class will be improved drastically between now and February. The players who are talented enough to come to Knoxville and contribute will be kept, and those who aren't will probably be asked to look elsewhere. Even if we get in a bind in trying to fill spots like Dooley had when Lane Kiffin handcuffed him three years ago, there is a core of solid players who appear to be sticking with the orange and white.
There are many questions in this class. But it wasn't going to win any awards, anyway. The good news is it seems Dooley targeted kids who know the meaning of the word commitment, and we may need it during the arduous process of finding somebody to lead our program out of this dismal state.