The third head coach in as many years, Derek Dooley, by default, received a relatively luxurious timeline to bring Tennessee football back to prominence.
The attrition and internal turnover provided a foundation shaky enough to divide the timeline to recovery by years, not months.
A little more than one year since he took the job, though, Dooley is mere weeks away from wrapping up a signing class that, as recent history in the SEC shows, could not only provide immediate contributions, but set the table for even loftier plateaus in the near future.
His counterparts in the SEC can attest: The majority of league coaches’ second signing classes came in with high expectations and delivered.
Some, such as Gene Chizik’s second class at Auburn and Urban Meyer’s second at Florida, had a direct impact on the team’s national championship run during the subsequent season. Others, such as Nick Saban’s at Alabama and Les Miles’ at LSU, led to a sizable upgrade and served as the foundation for a national title one year later.
The cupboard certainly was bare when Dooley took over, but it was just as depleted at some other schools before an abrupt BCS run.
“I wouldn’t call it a phenomenon,” ESPN national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said. “I would actually probably say it’s to be expected if you’re at a prominent program.”
UT’s current scouting service rankings, however, don’t indicate that it is following the direct path that Auburn, Alabama, LSU and Florida respectively followed to their national titles. Auburn’s, Florida’s and Alabama’s classes in their new coaches’ second year were all ranked in the top five among the major scouting services. Miles’ class of 2006 was ranked as the seventh-best by Rivals.com.
As it stands, UT’s class ranks 21st on Rivals.com, 23rd on ESPN.com and 24th on Scout.com.
“It’s obvious he has a very different outlook than the Lane Kiffins of the world,” 247sports.com recruiting analyst Barton Simmons said. “(Dooley is) definitely going after what they consider to be kids that are character kids, kids that are going to be hard-working members of the program rather than just going for the flash and the stars and the biggest names they can find.
“It’s a different approach and it’s one we’re going to find out very quickly sort of what works and what doesn’t.”
Kiffin’s first and only class at UT hovered near the top 10 on most scouting service rankings. With tailback David Oku’s announced departure Friday, six of the 22 members of that class either never made it to campus or no longer are with the team.
Dooley doesn’t have the luxury to miss with that many members in his 2011 class. After playing well below the 85 scholarship player maximum in 2010, the Vols likely will do so again in 2011, even if all 26 players who are eligible to be signed to a scholarship qualify and become contributing members of the team.
“You have to have good players, but you have to have the right players, too,” Luginbill said. “Not everybody fits with every program.
“There’s a heck of a lot of variables that go beyond just being a good player.”
There’s no comparison between the inherited wealth that the four second-year coaches who won national championships since 2000 had compared to what Dooley will bring back in 2011.
The 2000 Oklahoma team under Bob Stoops had a Walter Camp Award winner at quarterback, Josh Heupel, and two All-Americans on defense, Rocky Calmus and J.T. Thatcher. Ohio State in 2002 had a veteran quarterback, Craig Krenzel, and a defense loaded with upperclassmen who eventually became NFL regulars. Meyer had five veterans who made the All-SEC first team, and Chizik had an offensive line loaded with experience and a defense with six senior starters.
But all four of those teams also received immediate contributions from players in their coaches’ second signing class. Maurice Clarett and A.J. Hawk made an immediate impact with the Buckeyes; Percy Harvin was the SEC Freshman of the Year and Tim Tebow was a goal-line weapon with the Gators; and Cam Newton, this year’s Heisman trophy winner, and tailback Michael Dyer, who helped clinch the Tigers’ title with his 37-yard run near the end of the game, provided the backbone of Auburn’s prolific offense.
Alabama’s class of 2008, though, stands as one of the best since 2000, as future Heisman trophy winner Mark Ingram, wide receiver Julio Jones, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, safety Mark Barron and defensive tackle Terrence Cody all were major contributors during the Crimson Tide’s 2009 title run.
“Where that Alabama program was coming from and where that class took it to was a quick turn,” Simmons said. “When you consider those factors, I definitely think that’s more of the impact-full classes we’ve seen in a while.”
Luginbill said that UT commitments such as linebacker A.J. Johnson (Gainesville, Ga.) and offensive guard Marcus Jackson (Vero Beach, Fla.) will be able to step in and help mold the foundation set by last year’s contributing freshmen, center James Stone, tackle Ja’Wuan James and wide receivers Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers. The Vols’ current highest-ranked player, wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett (Saginaw, Mich.), picked UT over a number of schools specifically so he could help bring the Vols back to BCS contention. Others, such as junior-college defensive tackle Maurice Couch (Edgewater, Fla.) and defensive backs Pat Martin (Greenville, S.C.), Justin Coleman (Brunswick, Ga.) and Brian Randolph (Marietta, Ga.), are expected to contend for immediate playing time.
Though the class currently lacks the high rankings of previous second-year success stories, its importance weighs just as heavily on the future of the program.
“This second class is definitely the first real reflection of a coaching staff,” Simmons said. “Not only because it’s a first full year, but also because it’s coming off a first full season.
“They’re recruiting off what they’ve done and the future as well.”
Andrew Gribble covers Tennessee football and recruiting. He may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble/