Signing limits hurt UT Vols after late recruiting defections

Signing limits hurt UT Vols after late recruiting defections

February 4th, 2012 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley talks to his players during a timeout during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Florida, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, in Gainesville, Fla.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Their names were left off the class list.

They were discussed, albeit anonymously.

The last-minute defections by linebackers Dalton Santos and Otha Peters from Tennessee's 2012 signing class grabbed plenty of attention, but neither move shocked Volunteers coach Derek Dooley, though they did highlight the challenge of the SEC's new 25-player cap on signing classes.

"Neither of them surprised us," Dooley said Wednesday. "The drama helps the viewership; I get it. We need that drama to drive readers and turn it into a TV show. But from the beginning, even back in September, we knew those two guys ... it was going to be a tough road to close them out because they were both far away and never shut it down.

"They were always going to listen to other schools and go on trips. When that's happening, experience tells you that you're not going to get them at the end. What made it challenging for us was, because of the 25 rule, you couldn't stockpile more at that position, knowing you were going to lose them or [that] there's a chance you're going to lose them."

Santos' flip to Texas and Peters' decision to sign with Arkansas left the Vols with just two linebackers in the class: Dunwoody (Ga.) High's Justin King and Akron (Ohio) Archbishop Hoban High's LaTroy Lewis. Both Santos, ESPN's top-rated inside linebacker prospect, and Peters, a top-five recruit in Louisiana, were candidates for early playing time as UT transitions to more four-linebacker schemes under new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri. Their decisions to sign elsewhere left the Vols with a shortage at the position.

Dooley hinted UT might not be done. He almost certainly was referring to Kenneth Bynum, a Cincinnati commitment from Jacksonville (Fla.) Raines High who delayed signing on Wednesday. According to multiple reports, Bynum, whose offer list includes Illinois, North Carolina, Stanford and West Virginia, is expected to visit UT officially next week.

That's not to say, though, that Dooley isn't excited about King and Lewis.

"I think both of them will be really good football players," he said. "LaTroy probably wasn't as good a fit in our old scheme, and he knew it. He was getting a little shaky in December. I told him, 'I'm going to fix it, be patient, you're going to fit in perfectly with what we're about to do.' He was patient and he was great."

Though he was listed by the recruiting services as a defensive end, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Lewis will play linebacker at UT. He certainly won't be the only player to make that transition this offseason. Rising senior Willie Bohannon and rising junior and former Ooltewah star Jacques Smith likely will move to outside linebacker, though nothing will be set until spring practice starts in March.

Freshmen standouts Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson are the lone proven commodities UT has at linebacker. Whether Herman Lathers can fully overcome a fractured ankle and return to the form he showed in 2010 is unknown, and the other assets are unproven. Dontavis Sapp, Nigel Mitchell-Thornton, Raiques Crump and John Propst have only been reserves, Greg King has been unable to stay healthy and Christian Harris is a redshirt freshman.

The Vols certainly would have preferred to have backup plans in case Santos and Peters bailed, but the SEC's new rule, which removes room for error for coaching staffs, prevented it. If a school over signed, it faced a three-for-one penalty, meaning it would have to forfeit three scholarships in next year's class. Dooley called navigating the rule a challenge and added he wasn't alone.

"In the past when you hit midterm and you knew a guy wasn't going to qualify academically," he said, "you signed him and you helped him go to a junior college and you helped give him that hope that he can come back to a school like Tennessee.

"This year, when we hit December, we did a real thorough analysis of what the academic risk was on a lot of players, and we had to part ways with a lot of guys for academic reasons. You get criticized for it."

Between early December and early January, the Vols lost three committed players. Running back Imani Cross (Nebraska), linebacker Khalid Henderson (Kentucky) and receiver Keithon Redding (Southern Miss) eventually signed elsewhere. UT had to manage its numbers both for this class, which included grayshirted 2011 signee Tino Thomas, and the 85-player roster limit.

"You really had to think twice about stretching too many [national letters of intent] out there because it was going to be a three-for-one penalty," Dooley said. "I think a lot of schools find themselves a little shorter than what we normally would be. It is tricky? Yeah. That's the rule.

"I've been against it, and I'm going to continue to be against it. I don't think the rule we had in place hurt the young people. I think it helped them in a lot of ways [to] keep their opportunity. We're not able to do that anymore."