KNOXVILLE – Time can be the best judge of a recruiting class.
At least five major media outlets offer rankings of college football recruiting classes each year, but ultimately they are judged by the contribution of those in the class over a course of four to five years.
Just a year and a half after the ink dried on the 2012 signing class, the final complete class signed by former coach Derek Dooley, there are already signs of trouble for UT’s group from that year.
It was Dooley’s third signing class – one that he had two years to build relationships for. It was supposed to be the class that restocked depth and added playmakers.
But coming off a 5-7 season and the loss of seven (six left before National Signing Day) of his assistant coaches that offseason, the Vols struggled to finish on the recruiting path.
“The season didn't end the way we wanted it to end and every week was a change in coaching,” Dooley said on Feb. 1, 2012. “We gave a lot of ammunition to our competitors and in this league, it is hard enough when you don't give them ammunition and we gave them plenty.”
Despite the competitive disadvantages on the recruiting trail, Dooley and a small pool of assistants rallied to make the class respectable in the rankings. It was ranked 17th by Rivals.com. ESPN.com put it 21st, 247Sports had it 20th and Scout.com ranked it 25th.
If the classes were re-ranked, the Vols would certainly fall out of the Top 25 from that year at this point. Eight of 22 (36 percent) of the prospects signed have already left the program.
It hasn’t been all bad. Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, ranked as one of the top junior college players in the 2012 class, had a huge impact in his one season in Knoxville before moving on to the NFL as a first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings last month. Defensive lineman Daniel McCullers has gone from 400-pound project to a potential first-round pick in the 2014 draft.
Receiver Cody Blanc has a great chance to start as a true sophomore next season despite being just a two-star recruit. Safety LaDarrell McNeil took over as a starter last year after Brian Randolph’s injury. He figures to play a lot in 2013.
The attrition is beginning to take a toll on the team’s depth, though. That’s especially true in the trenches. It was a class that didn’t include any offensive linemen and has already lost half of its defensive linemen – Darrington Sentimore, Trent Taylor and Omari Phillips.
The departures of Daniel Gray and Deion Bonner have left cornerback position thin. The same can be said at running back with the losses of Quenshaun Watson and Davante Bourque.
Despite the noticeable losses, several members of the class still have a chance to make a big impact in 2013 and beyond. Nathan Peterman is competing for the starting quarterback job. Receivers such as Blanc, Jason Croom and Pig Howard are in line for many more opportunities next year.
Linebacker Kenny Bynum, defensive end LaTroy Lewis, tight end Justin Meredith and kicker George Bullock are among the players who missed last year with injuries. They’re all ready for a second chance.
The whole class will look forward to another chance under new coach Butch Jones. It’s smaller in number, but still has some upside. It’s not fair to put a complete judgment on it yet. Check back in 2016.
UT’s 2012 signing class:
WR Cody Blanc: Saw limited action in 2012, but left this spring atop the depth chart.
CB Deion Bonner: Left the program after the 2012 season.
RB Davante Bourque: Made it to campus, but only participated in a few practices before leaving for junior college.
WR Drae Bowles: Sat behind UT’s talented receivers in 2012. Is expected to push for playing time in 2013, but struggled to nail down a spot this spring.
K George Bullock: Missed 2012 with a broken leg.
LB Kenny Bynum: Missed 2012 with a knee injury.
WR Jason Croom: Has struggled with injuries, but is in good position to play in 2013 if he can stay healthy.
CB Daniel Gray: Started one game in 2012. Left the program after spring practice this year.
RB Alden Hill: Redshirted in 2012, but is pushing for the backup running back role next year, especially if Marlin Lane doesn’t rejoin the team.
WR Pig Howard: Saw some time in the slot last year. Should be an important part of Jones’ new offense.
TE Justin King: Has bounced from linebacker to fullback to tight end. Is battling for playing time at tight end.
DE LaTroy Lewis: Missed 2012 with a knee injury. Is now pushing for playing time at defensive end.
DT Daniel McCullers: Developed into one of UT’s best defensive linemen in 2012. Opted to stay at UT and with improved conditioning, could be a high pick in next year’s draft.
S LaDarrell McNeil: Developed into a starter by midseason after Randolph’s injury. Is currently the third safety behind Randolph and Byron Moore, but should see the field a lot.
TE Justin Meredith: A hamstring issue kept him out all of 2012 and he was extremely limited again this spring.
DT Danny O’Brien: Redshirted in 2012 and is still pretty far down the depth chart. Should be a big factor in 2014 and beyond.
WR Cordarrelle Patterson: Completely lived up to the hype as a top prospect in 2012. Was a huge weapon in the receiving, running and return game. Selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the first round of the 2013 draft.
QB Nathan Peterman: Redshirted in 2012, will compete with Justin Worley and incoming freshmen for the starting quarterback job.
DT Omari Phillips: Left the team following the 2012 season.
DL Darrington Sentimore: The former Alabama and junior college prospect had a moderately productive 2012 and was a surprise early entry in the 2013 draft. He went undrafted.
DE Trent Taylor: Left the program after the 2012 season.
RB Quenshaun Watson: Left the program after the 2012 season.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga