Derek Dooley comments on UT's signing day
With just 18 days to assemble a signing class, newly hired Tennessee coach Derek Dooley admitted there were some nervous times.
The days - then hours - seemed to move slowly as National Signing Day approached. Yet, despite some defections, the former Louisiana Tech coach appeared ready for big-time college football recruiting on Wednesday.
Led by Dooley, the Vols finished the day with 25 signees, ranking ninth, 11th and 15th nationally by Rivals.com, ESPN and Scout.com, respectively.
Still, Dooley tried to temper the enthusiasm during his signing-day press conference at Neyland Stadium.
"I think it's a little bit jumping the gun to get so excited for signing day even though I think it's a great event for the fans," he said.
Dooley pointed to UT's highly rated class of 2007 as proof. After achieving one of the highest ratings in the nation, Dooley said only 50 percent of those players are still on the roster.
UT's 2010 class finished just sixth in the SEC according to Scout and ESPN and fourth in the conference according to Rivals. SEC East rival Florida led all three lists for the top class in the nation.
Still, Wednesday was a day for UT fans to celebrate, even if only for avoiding disaster. When former coach Lane Kiffin bolted UT for Southern California on Jan. 12, even the most optimistic UT fan was concerned for the immediate recruiting future.
Although long gone, Kiffin's staff still played a significant role for the Vols on Wednesday. His eight midterm enrollees gave Dooley the opportunity to close strong.
"There's eight less guys you have to baby-sit and worry about these other schools coming in and attacking," Dooley said.
The fact that all of those eight decided to stay at UT - even though they would have to sit out a season if they transferred - also bolstered Dooley's position, he said. Had three or four left UT, other prospects might have gone on alert.
Besides assembling UT's 2010 class, Dooley and Kiffin share one other common bond: They both believe that recruiting well in Georgia is key to returning UT to a championship contender.
"One thing that is certain is that we have to do a good job in the state of Georgia, among other states," Dooley said. "There's a lot of good football players in that state. In the past in all my years watching this program, when they've won, they've had some very good players come out of Georgia."
Dooley, whose father Vince Dooley was a legendary coach at Georgia, still remembers being a Georgia graduate assistant and seeing offensive lineman Cosey Coleman, safety Deon Grant and tailback Jamal Lewis leave the state and help the Vols to a national championship in 1998.
The Vols signed six players from Georgia on Wednesday, none more significant than receiver Da'Rick Rogers. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder from Calhoun High School is considered the top prospect in Georgia and had been committed to the Bulldogs since June.
The reaction on social networking Web sites was strong when news leaked Tuesday night that Rogers had changed his mind and would sign with UT.
"I'm glad to be a Vol baby," Rogers said Wednesday on the News Sentinel's radio show, The Sports Page. "My Twitter went crazy, but I love it though. You're going to get negative people. You just have to look past it though."
The other late addition to UT's class came in the form of 6-5, 300-pound offensive lineman James Stone from Maplewood High in Nashville. Stone was all but committed to Alabama when Kiffin was in charge. Dooley, who coached under Alabama coach Nick Saban for much of his career, scored one on his mentor.
"I was real happy James changed his mind and I was real happy he allowed me an opportunity to get in front of him," Dooley said, adding that recruiting within Tennessee's borders will be key to UT's improvement.
The Vols' one disappointing surprise Wednesday came when defensive end J.C. Copeland signed with LSU despite giving every indication that he would live up to his eight-month-long commitment to UT.
Before signing day, the Vols learned they were going to lose out on two other commitments. Linebacker Glen Stanley from Eastern Arizona Junior College signed with USC while linebacker Ralph Williams from Southridge High in Miami signed with Ole Miss.
That, along with the pressures of building a class in three weeks, opened the door for a lower-rated prospect to sign with UT. Raiques Crump from Minor High in Adamsville, Ala., was one of a handful of UT signees who only had scholarship offers from lower-level schools.
"I evaluate with my eyes, not with my ears and not on the computer," Dooley said. "There were several guys we signed that were not publicized as high profile prospects.
"Not one of them did I take because we couldn't get somebody else. We took them because we believe they can really help our football team build a good corps on the team and help us on special teams. I think there's a lot of value in all these guys."
Dooley already sees future value in some big guys. The Vols signed only four offensive linemen and one defensive tackle on Wednesday despite having pressing needs at both positions.
"There's no question; next year's class better be heavy with some linemen," Dooley said.
Perhaps it won't take that long. Dooley didn't rule out signing another prospect in the coming weeks.
"We have one or two spots where if the right player comes in and fits what we need, we have that flexibility," Dooley said.
Only this time, there won't be quite so much pressure to recruit them.