Vols signing day: Smokey and the bandit

Vols signing day: Smokey and the bandit

February 4th, 2010 by Wes Rucker in Sports

Staff photo by Patrick Smith/Chattanooga Times Free Press "Time to Twitter," wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers said Wednesday, after committing to Tennessee during a ceremony at Calhoun High School. Da'Rick posted "Yeah Ima Vol babyy!! It been real!!! Love everybody!!! UT!!!" on his Twitter account following his announcement.

Staff photo by Patrick Smith/Chattanooga Times Free Press...

KNOXVILLE -- Derek Dooley inherited an almost impossible situation nearly three weeks ago.

Relatively speaking, though, Wednesday's national signing day was nearly perfect for Dooley.

The University of Tennessee's new football coach stood behind a podium underneath Neyland Stadium on Wednesday night, and his grin suggested his Volunteers had just won a Southeastern Conference game.

UT, nearly three weeks removed from its second coaching change in 15 months, signed a recruiting class widely considered one of the nation's 10 best.

Rivals.com and ESPN.com ranked the Vols' class ninth nationally. Scout.com ranked it No. 15.

"Nineteen days on the job, and it feels like it's been already two years," Dooley said. "When I got here, it's sort of an understatement to say the program was a little bit in a fragile state. We had so much to do, and a short time to get there ... but Tennessee has so much to sell.

"It wasn't as hard as people think to go out there and convince some of these young men to come to Tennessee. It was just a matter of me getting in front of them, and selling who I am, and what I believe, and selling our coaching staff, and selling where we're headed with the program."

The Volunteers rallied from an early-morning setback to land all but one of the prospects they were expected to sign.

Four-star defensive lineman J.C. Copeland from LaGrange, Ga., one of the nation's most well-regarded prospects, told people on Tuesday night that he would honor his months-long commitment to UT. Then Copeland woke up Wednesday morning and faxed his national letter of intent to LSU.

Aside from being consistently the toughest position to recruit, defensive tackle was one of the Vols' biggest needs in this class.

"You never go to bed (the night before) feeling good, and certainly not in this league," said Dooley, a former LSU recruiting coordinator and the son of legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley. "You always go to bed saying, 'OK, this large chunk here, I feel pretty good about. These guys, I'm nervous. These guys, I think I can get, but I'm not sure.' There's always that group, and when it happens, it just ... it is what it is. It's a helpless feeling. When you lose communication, that's when it really gets back.

"I think it's fair to say you have some disappointments, but not surprises. You have some ecstatic (moments), but not surprises."

The rest of Wednesday, by all accounts, went well. One year after losing a top, in-state wide receiver prospect to Georgia, the Vols plucked five-star, All-America wideout Da'Rick Rogers from the Bulldogs.

Rogers highlights a set of four receivers that represent UT's best one-year haul at that position in decades.

"One thing that is certain is that we have to do a good job in the state of Georgia," Dooley said. "There's a lot of good football players in that state. And in the past, in all my years of watching this program, when they've won, they've had some very good football players from Georgia. I remember when I was on the Georgia staff, and Cosey Coleman and Jamal Lewis and Deon Grant gets plucked right out of the state. Then what happens a few years later? A national championship.

"That's not to say that that's the only state that's important, but it's certainly a critical state, because of the number of good football players, and its close proximity."

UT started securing its own state border two hours later, when ballyhooed, four-star offensive lineman James Stone from Nashville chose the Vols over archrival, defending national champion Alabama.

"As soon as I talked to Coach Dooley, I knew Tennessee was a place I could prosper as a player and a person," said Stone, who didn't share a similar connection with Lane Kiffin's UT staff. "It just felt right, and I've always like Tennessee, and that's pretty much what it came down to."

The Vols finished Wednesday with 25 signees, but Dooley said they could add "one or two" in the near future. UT played last season well below the maximum allotment of 85 scholarship players.

"We have one or two spots where if the right player comes in, who fits what we need, we have that flexibility," Dooley said. "You can also count them back, so there's lot of different ways we can use those openings, but we're not closed out."

If the Vols are closed, though, their finish exceeded most reasonable expectations in the initial wake of Kiffin's departure -- when a top 3 class seemed a virtual certainty.

Dooley and Co. assembled their class in mere weeks despite a few key holes in their staff. UT didn't officially hire Boise State defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox until Wednesday, and the Vols still don't have a defensive line coach.

The massive amounts of uncertainty left programs circling like vultures for most of UT's top targets, but the Vols held onto a vast majority of them.

"It certainly is challenging when you have to go sell a program in two weeks, because you're never going to get someone to trust you in a week or two," Dooley said. "It only happens over time, and we were battling relationships that were formed back in February of last year, so yeah, it was a tough sell, so I'm ecstatic that we are where we are."

UT didn't meet all its needs, though, as Dooley mentioned. Copeland's void left just one pure defensive tackle signee in this class -- four-star junior college prospect John Brown -- and that player has academic hurdles to overcome.

"It's challenging, but that's what you're dealt with, so you can't whine, and you can't complain," Dooley said of the past weeks' obstacles. "When I took the job, I didn't go, 'Well, that's not fair.' You know what you're getting into. There's nothing you can do to look back and say, 'Gosh this,' or, 'Gosh that.' I'm happy with the class that we got. There's going to be challenges in everything. We're going to have challenges in a game. Welcome to life. You have challenges. Things don't always work out the way you want it, and so you just figure out your solution to the next thing. That's what we try to do.

"There's challenges, but there were some advantages. Let's don't lose sight that we got some guys who weren't interested in this place for other reasons. James Stone's a classic example. For every time you complain about, 'Well, we lost this guy,' well, we also got rewarded, too. It all evens out. It really does."

Dooley hopes next year's class evens out the roster with a bevy of big bodies.

"When you have two weeks, it's really hard to say, 'What do we need?' And it's more important, I think, to say, 'What are the best players out there that we can get?'" Dooley said. "Certainly, there's no question that next year's class better be heavy with some linemen. I think there were some areas where we got exactly what we hoped for, and there's some areas you're never happy with, but I think that's going to be the case on every signing day. Next year, we may be saying the same thing about another position.

"But overall, like I said, I'm thrilled with what we've done in such a short time."

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