Derek Dooley didn’t blink last fall when it looked as if his first full signing class was struggling to come together.
The Tennessee football coach simply stuck to his plan, checked the calendar and went back to work.
The players Dooley was chasing that whole time didn’t flinch either when the day finally came to make it official.
They made their own plans, checked the calendar to see that Wednesday was National Signing Day and signed their name to go work for the Vols.
The patient, persistent approach from everybody involved eventually came together on a day that essentially played out exactly as UT planned it, with Dooley collecting 27 signatures for a class that should finish with a consensus top-15 ranking that has been building for months.
“Everybody was panicking back in June because we had one commitment,” Dooley said in his first press conference since the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30. “But the way we recruit is very process-driven. We don’t throw hot sauce on them on the final weekend and try to scoop them in. I don’t think that stands the test of time, and I don’t think guys that come here with that kind of hot sauce on them, (if) that appeals to them, are the kind of guys that stick.
“Developing a deep relationship over time, selling what Tennessee has to sell, I think when you do that on enough players, eventually you’ll get a quality class.”
On paper Dooley has put together his second solid group in a row with UT, providing more critical pieces to the rebuilding puzzle he started a little more than a year ago.
And while he again downplayed the importance of recruiting stars and evaluations and cautioned there was plenty more work to be done, Dooley appeared much more confident and optimistic than he did while introducing his initial signing class — part of which was inherited from the previous staff and the rest of which was salvaged with just a couple weeks of work.
With a full year at his disposal, Dooley made the most of it after going 6-7 in his first campaign, bringing in six players in the ESPNU 150, landing three heralded junior-college products and filling positions of need all across the board.
He also squeezed everything out of those 12 months, landing some of his biggest commitments in the hours leading up to National Signing Day — including four-star Nashville offensive lineman Antonio Richardson, Memphis tight end Cameron Clear and West Palm Beach, Fla., defensive end Curt Maggitt.
“I know these guys,” Dooley said. “I had two weeks to get these other guys, and I suspected that we had some good ones. But I didn’t recruit (right tackle) Ja’Wuan James. I did (center) James Stone, but I only knew James for a week.
“I feel like I have a better feel for the kind of players and the kind of people these guys are. Now, I say that with a lot of caution because it’s not an exact science. We don’t know, but I do think we’ve done a pretty good job of minimizing risk.”
Dooley preached that risk-management philosophy relentlessly as he methodically picked up commitments, sticking to the approach and fending off doubts that it was working when it didn’t immediately yield commitments.
And by the time the Vols were all done, that style had won over a batch of newcomers who didn’t back down when they did pledge their word before they could make it official.
“I think this is the first time I’ve ever been involved where every single player who committed never flinched,” Dooley said. “They never wavered, they never got shaky, they never got confused, they never went on another trip of significance.
“I think that is a real testament to the quality of people that we had and the type of recruiting that we do, which is done for the long haul.”
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward