KNOXVILLE - As Tennessee's football program proved last year, it's more about the finish than the start.
After the Volunteers turned a 2-6 start into a four-game November win streak to reach a bowl in Derek Dooley's first year as coach, Dooley and his staff also turned what appeared to be a slow recruiting start into a strong finish in February.
For the second consecutive year, the Vols have just two commitments in mid-May, more than eight months from February's signing day. That's fewer than every Southeastern Conference school except Vanderbilt, but based on how the Vols closed the 2011 class by adding four four-star players in a 72-hour span right before signing day, there's little reason for any concern.
The two commitments this year are Gainesville (Ga.) running back Imani Cross and Akron (Ohio) receiver Corey Smith, and Smith has to go to a junior college first.
"Guys are going to commit to teams that are hot," defensive line coach Lance Thompson said after speaking at the Big Orange Caravan stop in Cleveland on May 5. "We're not like Florida, either, because we don't have that [in-state] home base deal. In Georgia we're competing against Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Clemson. We'll get our guys - we've just got to do a good job on the road."
Dooley's short time on the job might have been a reason for the perceived slow start of last year, when UT's only committed players were linebacker Christian Harris and offensive lineman Alan Posey. This time around, though, the program and coaching staff have a year of stability to take with them in their evaluations and their time on the road.
"It always helps," Dooley said at Thursday's caravan stop in Chattanooga, "and it really doesn't start making an impact in recruiting, I don't think, for about three or four years. I believe that.
"We're way ahead of where we were last year at this time in recruiting, but we're still not where we want to be. I think another year of that is where you really start making a difference. We made some adjustments in recruiting and recruiting areas this year, and we're really not settled in yet. I was able to evaluate our situation in recruiting come January and say how do we need to tweak this thing to give us a better chance, and we made some changes."
UT's location and Dooley's style of recruiting are factors in the Vols not having a bunch of early commitments.
Even with the departure of coach Urban Meyer, Florida already has 10 commitments to successor Will Muschamp. Like the Gators, other schools such as Texas (16), Florida State (nine) and LSU (nine) also have taken advantage of their rich in-state recruiting soils. The Vols, however, traditionally have had to focus their efforts on players from outside Tennessee.
"At Alabama and LSU, we killed it in state," said Thompson, who coached at both schools under Alabama coach Nick Saban. "We shut the borders down - we got all the best players - so we had 10 to 12 to 15 guys a year that were homegrown. Last year was really good in Tennessee. We had six or seven that were homegrown, and we got them. When you don't have that in-state core, when you're going out of state, you've got to really do a good job."
Relationships always are important in recruiting, but Dooley and his staff made it an even more important focus in their efforts. The Vols, who didn't have any public decommitments in their 2011 class, stressed building those relationships with prospects over time while also working to get players to take as many unofficial visits to campus as possible.
UT needed just 40 official visits to sign 28 players in the 2011 class and have had 2012 prospects visit campus for games last season, a junior day in February and during spring practice.
Dooley's assistants have been out on the road visiting schools and players, updating their evaluations and working toward building the deep relationships that pay off when high school players make their final choices.
"For me and for us," Thompson said, "we trust in our evaluations. We've got to develop them; football is a developmental game. You win with character in football because it's pressure decisions quickly, and we're going to get our share of big-time guys. There's plenty of them out there. There's a lot of good football players out there."
And there's plenty of time left for the Vols to finish with a flourish again.