Vols rising senior tight end Mychal Rivera was one of the first recruits Derek Dooley dipped into the JUCO ranks for. He certainly wasn't the last.
"What are we? Mississippi State?"
The comment was harmless enough -- even though it was meant as a subtle dig at Derek Dooley -- coming from one of my fellow Vols buddies last week when I shot out the email that the Tennessee Volunteers had just received a commitment from junior college defensive tackle Ben Bradley.
Normally, I have a Dooley defense rebuttal, but what could I say? Comparing UT's coach's recruiting methods to those of the Southern standard of JUCO recruiting, Jackie Sherrill's old Bulldogs teams of the '80s and '90s, is pretty apt right now. In his brief tenure as the Vols' head coach, Dooley has really beaten the junior college bushes much more than we're used to seeing in Knoxville.
For all the concerns we had when Lane Kiffin brought in Ed Orgeron [notorious for courting junior college players] Dooley has continued the trend and even taken it up a notch.
After all, UT already has two junior college commitments in this year's class -- Bradley and Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College teammate De'Vondre Campbell. There are many more JUCO targets on the board -- such as wide receivers Kris Comas and Jonathan Rumph, defensive back Khambrel Garland [who would already be a Vol if we would take him], and defensive tackle Toby Johnson, among others.
- In Dooley's 2012 class, he snagged commitments from JUCO DT Daniel McCullers, DE Darrington Sentimore and WR Cordarrelle Patterson. The Vols would have taken Damien Jacobs, Denico Autry and Otis Jacobs had they wanted to come.
- In '11, Maurice Couch, Izauea Lanier and Byron Moore pledged to UT out of junior college and have all been in the rotation throughout their brief Vols tenures.
- Dooley even attempted to outfit his half-class in Knoxville with two-year players like defensive back Dave Clark and defensive tackle John Brown [neither of whom got into school] in 2010. JUCO tight end Mychal Rivera did and has started consistently since.
That's a lot of junior college players. But how many is too many? Are you really building a program with two-year players or are you just applying a band-aid to the gushing wound of a broken program? Is this a temporary solution or a trend in Tennessee recruiting that will be prevalent as long as Dooley is in charge? What are the answers? Dooley has always said that he won't go out and get a JUCO player unless he believes that player can help the Vols right away, and so far, most of the players he has brought in from the ranks have done just that. But is it healthy for a program?
These are all questions concerned fans who follow recruiting will ask. Recruiting JUCOs can be conducive to building a winning team, but historically, it isn't the best method to go about building a winning program.
Let's examine what's happening with UT recruiting, why it's happening and take a look at a few reasons Dooley has outfitted Tennessee with temporary fixes recently.
- It all started with simply searching for warm bodies. When you go all the way back to 2010, you remember that Kiffin left us in a lurch. When Dooley arrived, he essentially had less than a month to fill out a recruiting class that absolutely had to be full due to numbers issues. Dooley's search went high and low for anybody resembling a player who could hold his own in the SEC. Though Rivera was the only one of his reaches that have worked thus far, it's evident to see in the commitments of fringe conference players like Raiques Crump, Greg Clark, Dontavis Sapp, John Propst and others that Dooley -- for better or worse -- was really just trying to fill out a class.
- It continued with a necessity to establish a class of upperclassmen gutted by attrition. Now, let's get to the real reason why Dooley has really had to hammer the junior colleges looking for future Vols. I know that we link this terrific story by Will Shelton a ton on here, but it really is essential reading if you want to understand why Dooley is recruiting the way he has been. Quite simply put, the Vols needed some older players on the roster; guys who were more developed, who'd played beyond high school. Remember last year when UT essentially didn't have a senior class to speak of? Well, it's basically the same song, different verse this year. That lauded Kiffin class of 22 players in 2009 that has seen 14 players leave the program? Yeah, those guys were supposed to be seniors this year. Dooley has not only been trying to build immediate depth and get immediate on-field help, he has been trying to inject an upper class into a program devoid of one. Essentially, he's been trying to sprinkle some pixie dust and create leadership that simply didn't exist. This infusion hasn't worked, but at least Dooley has tried something where there was nothing before. Now that we're about to get a full wealth of Dooley recruits in the program, there is at least the strong possibility at least three of those rising juniors -- Da'Rick Rogers, Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray -- could look to go pro after next season. If that is the case, UT will have a smallish senior class yet again.
- The third reason is simple. Let's face it -- the Vols have been able to sell immediate playing time lately. That doesn't always work with high school kids as we see with loaded teams like Alabama, Florida State and LSU being able to still sell kids on making it to the League even when they're three-deep at every position. But the sell works on junior college kids. If you're in JUCO, chances are you've got two -- maybe three -- years left to play. Some of your time is already up. You want to go somewhere, anywhere, you can be seen. Not only have the Vols been able to sell the depth chart but actually starting jobs to guys like Mo Couch, Izauea Lanier and Byron Moore. They sold that again this year with Sentimore and McCullers. And because of that lack of senior and junior classes, more often than not, it's not just lip service.
- Next, though Dooley won't readily admit it, I think he can justify a lot of these targets with the fact that they've got three years of eligibility. That makes it a little easier to stomach taking a junior college kid. Players like Couch, Lanier, Moore and, in this year's class, Campbell and Comas, have three years to play three. When you consider a lot of these guys may be ready to play right away, it's not too big a gamble. Then, if you have an acclimation year like what was needed last season in easing along a guy like Moore, you still get to reap two years of him firmly in the rotation. It's not a bad payoff.
- Finally, this year, it's just a connections thing. You always see teams trying to get the upper hand any way they can. Sometimes, it's hiring a team's head coach. Others, it's package deals like what Clemson just did to get Robert Nkemdiche and how the Vols lured Da'Rick Rogers. Less on the up-and-up, there are reports of coaches [allegedly] doing other things to secure commitments. The Vols are not immune to seizing advantage of opportunities as we mentioned in the package deal story. This year, they've positioned themselves for some really good JUCO prospects by hiring Brandon Staley -- perhaps the MVP of UT's recruiting class thus far. Staley is the former defensive coordinator at Hutchinson who also lured a bunch of kids there and was hired as a graduate assistant in charge of coaching the Vols' outside linebackers. He helped seal the deal with Patterson, and his familiarity with Campbell and Bradley led to their commitments. The Vols also had a natural connection with Bradley because he and Jason Croom went to Norcross (Ga.) HS. The Vols are also in a nice spot with Johnson partly because of Staley, and Garland -- who played at Hutch last year -- would already be a UT commit if we'd accept him now.
With all the negativity being thrown around by opposing coaches about Dooley's future in Knoxville, the Vols are in a win-now mode when it comes to recruiting. Dooley's lack of success is really being felt in the pursuit of marquee high school talent right now. They're having to get the best guys available or use their ties to players, and, right now, that appears to be JUCO-heavy. For better or worse, it's the situation the Vols and Dooley are going to be in until they post some Ws.
So, as you can see, there is no one answer as to why the Vols have beaten the junior college bushes more than usual lately. Is it because Dooley had to inject some experience? Because he felt he had to? Because we can sell immediate playing time? Or because he's just utilizing the connections?
The answer fluctuates but, at any point in time, it's probably "all of the above." It's an imperfect, high-risk, high-reward approach, but, then again, isn't all of recruiting? We may all try to defend Dooley's methods, but the bottom line is until he wins, any recruiting decisions he has made should -- and will -- be highly scrutinized. Meanwhile, we'll just sit back, hope and trust that this coaching staff knows what's best for this program right now and for the future.