KNOXVILLE - The rankings say the finish to Tennessee's 2011 football recruiting class was much stronger than the start.
In mid-October, 14 of the 16 players who had committed to the Volunteerrs and eventually signed with them Wednesday were three-star prospects or lower, but UT coach Derek Dooley probably didn't even notice.
"This is not a disrespect to the other services that rank players. I have a very systematic approach," he said Wednesday. "I watch the film. I don't evaluate with my ears; I evaluate with my eyes when it comes to a player.
"I don't know how many stars or numerical or position rank [players have] when I'm watching the film in February and March and April and in the season. We just go through a real diligent evaluation process, and if I like the guy and think he can help us, we take him."
The Vols' 28-player incoming class rated in the top 15 nationally according to the most popular recruiting services: Scout.com (11th), Rivals.com (12th), ESPN (13th) and 247sports.com (13th).
"It's such a big thing out there and that's OK," Dooley said, "but I do believe that most of those guys, and I don't want to speak for them, are strictly evaluating the talent -- the size and speed and talent level -- of the player.
"And that's fair. But there's a lot of factors that go into whether that talented player can fit in your program and be a good player over the next four years. They evaluate just straight size, speed and athleticism of a player. I don't think they're wrong is what I'm saying.
"What I have to do is evaluate more than that to determine whether they fit for our program and whether they'll stick."
Dooley has reiterated his process of evaluating potential targets, citing the five criteria he and his staff use: the player's size and speed at his position; position-specific skills; intangibles of toughness, effort, discipline and passion for the game; academic makeup; and character.
Quarterback signee Justin Worley, the Gatorade National Player of the Year, threw for more than 5,000 yards and a South Carolina high school record 64 touchdowns, but he was rated onlyl a three-star prospect.
Three-star defensive back Brian Randolph was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Georgia, a state that produced more than 150 Bowl Subdivision signees. Dooley specifically mentioned Knoxville all-purpose running back Devrin Young as a potential factor in reviving the Vols' return game next season.
"I'm not really beating up the rankings," Dooley said. "They're looking at something different than what I have to look at.
"That's why sometimes it can appear we take under-the-radar guys and sometimes we're begging for the guys the services think are phenomenal players because they fit, too. It's never 100 percent either way. Everybody makes mistakes. It's a hard deal evaluating players."
Some recruits, like three-star defensive lineman Trevarris Saulsberry, earned their offers with performances at UT summer camps. A handful of UT's other three-star prospects had offer lists that included other major programs.
"There was a lot of criticism early in the summertime about some of these guys," Dooley said, "but they really performed the way I had hoped their senior years. I trust our process.
"We're going to make mistakes, but we continue to learn from them. You've got to constantly grow as an evaluator, and I think the mistake you make is when you stray away from what you believe and what you see."