If it wasn’t already glaringly clear how important the 2012 recruiting class is to Derek Dooley’s fragile tenure as Tennessee head coach, he explained it himself on Wednesday.
“We gave a lot of ammunition to our competitors and in this league, it is hard enough when you don't give them ammunition,” he said. “We gave them plenty.”
Between posting sub-.500 records the last two seasons, replacing six members of the coaching staff this offseason and fighting to emerge from the fog of NCAA investigations, Dooley and the Vols made themselves vulnerable. The brutal foes of the SEC are more than willing to pounce. All those teams looking to raid UT’s recruits had plenty of bullets. Don’t think that the program’s downward slide wasn't plainly laid out in front of committed players by opposing coaches looking to poach talent.
“What I try to do, of course, is anticipate what other schools are going to say, but it's still out there,” Dooley said. “Social media has really changed so much in our game and so much in the recruiting process. It just presents a lot of challenges because you find yourself having to defend the absurdity.”
Dooley spoke with a febrile tone Wednesday as he discussed his 21-man recruiting class and the future of the program. Despite two highly regarded linebackers de-committing, he went as far as to say, “ It is hard to feel better than I do today. ... This is the best that I have felt, as far as the future of our program and where we are headed, in the 24 months that I have been on the job. It is a good day, men. It is a happy day.”
In the end, for whatever it’s worth, Dooley's class, headlined by junior college wideout Cordarrelle Patterson, is ranked 17th nationally by rivals.com. Five SEC programs sit ahead of Tennessee, led by Alabama’s top-ranked class.
In reality, though, those numbers mean little. Outside of those few, rare, can’t-miss prospects, it’s all a guessing game. And Dooley desperately needs to have guessed correctly here. This is no puzzle. There are no corners. It's talent. At the end of the day — it's just talent. Even if Dooley were the best gameday coach in America, which he’s not, it wouldn’t matter in the SEC. The Vols won’t climb the rungs out of the league basement unless they level the playing field.
Will this class be a boost? No one knows. No amount of stars or ratings or rankings can tell you anything about anyone. Players develop as they develop and you can't predict it.
Dooley’s sublime self-assuredness Tuesday was nevertheless absolutely necessary. There are cogent reasons for the downward spiral of Tennessee football. Some of them are his fault, some aren’t. That means little to a combustive fan base tugged by fattened emotions. For the most part, they only see two numbers — Dooley’s $2.3 million annual salary and his 4-12 record in SEC play.
Thus, optimism is needed. Speaking to a fan gathering during a signing day celebration on the Tennessee Terrace in Neyland Stadium, Dooley reached into his warehouse of parables and pulled one out. It was the same one he grabbed after a 20-12 loss to Georgia in December.
“There’s a certain type of bamboo out there that you water and water and water everyday and nothing comes out of the ground — nothing,” Dooley said. “And then all of the sudden about two years later, it takes off and goes about 60 feet in 20 days.
“As I’ve told the team, we’re watering bamboo. And when you get caught up in results, you quit watering it and it never comes up. Well, all this work we’ve done the last two years, it’s time to turn the page. And we’re going to start moving forward. The worst his behind us.”
Time will tell. Dooley knows he can’t sell the future forever. Those results he talked about — they need to come. His natural inclination is to preach that the program needs to put on blinders and stay on course. The problem is, confidence in the direction of that course is wavering.
When he mentioned what he called, “The Tennessee brand,” Dooley confidently stated, “I don't care what anybody says, this is a special place and it still sells all over the country.”
The great paradox is that the well fortified Tennessee brand is exactly why Dooley is under the gun.
He doesn’t need to give that anymore ammunition either.