KNOXVILLE — The departure of six assistant coaches.
A losing season capped by an embarrassing loss.
A fuller depth chart than in year's past.
Tennessee's recruiting efforts faced more challenges than normal, but that didn't hinder the Volunteers from inking a class that led coach Derek Dooley to call Wednesday's national signing day a happy one. The Vols landed the biggest catch of the class at the end when star junior-college receiver Cordarrelle Patterson chose UT.
"I will say this is probably as tough a recruiting climate in the last 12 months as I've been through, starting in the spring with all the things that were going on departmentally in the NCAA [investigation]," Dooley said at his signing day news conference Wednesday evening. "I think we hit July with one commitment, which is not what we want. Then, of course, the season didn't end the way we wanted it to end, and then every week was a change in coaching.
"We gave a lot of ammunition to our competitors, and in this league it's hard enough when you don't give them ammunition. We gave them plenty."
UT lost a pair of committed linebackers late and missed out on a trio of prospects who decided on Wednesday, but Patterson's signing somewhat rescued the day. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, a five-star prospect and the nation's top-rated junior-college player according to 247sports, went public with his choice early Wednesday morning, picking the Vols over finalists Georgia, Ole Miss, LSU and Auburn.
"The first phone call came from Tennessee last year on signing day," he told ESPN. "They never gave up. With some other teams, I would talk to the coaches once a week or something like that. Tennessee was different.
"They would call me almost every day, and they kept rolling with me. They kept sticking by me."
After adding 11 offensive lineman in the past three classes, the Vols went without one and elected to go heavy on skill players, adding four receivers and three running backs. A pair of junior-college defensive linemen and Dallas safety LaDarrell McNeil highlight the defensive signees.
Dooley credited Jim Chaney, Darin Hinshaw and Terry Joseph -- the three assistants who didn't leave for other jobs -- for the "incredible" job they did down the stretch. The coach had to balance making crucial hires for his third season with filling out the 20-player class. Some of those hires had to be quicker than others in order to finish the class.
"All I asked our recruits to do was be patient when it all hit," Dooley said. "It says a lot about the character and the commitment level to Tennessee and the grit level they showed. They were getting barraged from some quality schools, [but] they didn't flinch. They stayed with it.
"We had a quick loss there at the end, [but] that didn't have anything to do with coaching changes. I was really proud of that. It says a lot about the guys we got."
Dooley admitted he and his staff had to do more defending than usual against what he dubbed the "national barber shop," the negative images created by social media and other schools. The coach referenced the abounding rumors as challenges, even alluding to the numerous false reports that he hired former Miami coach Randy Shannon as defensive coordinator. Other schools certainly highlighted the large amount of coaching turnover and pointed at the instability of Dooley's future.
"You find yourself having to defend the absurdity," Dooley said. "You end up having to defend things that are not only baseless, but there's absolutely nothing to it. You find yourself in a defensive posture a lot. We created a lot of it.
"I'm not complaining about it. If we do our shop a little bit better at the end of the year, we don't have a lot of that. It's just the nature of the beast."
It's a beast that UT was able to overcome at least enough to the point where Dooley publicly continues to maintain he's confident in his program's future. Battling though those challenges is, in fact, what has him feeling positive.
"I think it's going to be a special group," he said, "because of that."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...