Recruiting is forged in relationships, and those sometimes take years to cultivate and grow. For Derek Dooley and his University of Tennessee staff, they've finally began to catch up after two full years in Knoxville.
Though the fruits of those relationships are evident now, you'd never have known it during summer 2011. The Vols were off to about as quiet a recruiting start in recent memory, getting shut out on commitments until June 14, when linebacker Khalid Henderson pulled the trigger for UT following a camp offer. (Running back Imani Cross actually committed earlier but has since been asked to look around and is no longer a UT commitment.)
With fewer than two months remaining until National Signing Day, that slow start is long forgotten as the Vols are nearly full with numerous targets of need remaining on the board. Rather than worrying about filling up the allotted 25 scholarships, UT is now trying to close with the best players on board - and the unpopular practice of culling recruits is probably going to have to happen.
Since Tennessee asked 2010 cornerback commit Tino Thomas to grayshirt and benefited from Notre Dame transfer offensive lineman Alex Bullard walking on and starting every game last season, those two likely will take up two scholarships toward this year's 25. UT currently has 22 verbal pledges with many irons left in the fire.
The Vols got off to a late start with commitments this year, but when they came, they rolled in in a hurry. In the 13 days between July 18-30 coinciding with one of UT's big summer camps, Dooley accepted 10 commitments, filling multiple needs along the way.
First came in-state wide receiver Drae Bowles and Georgia athlete Justin King (who will play linebacker) on July 18. Next, powerful running back Alden Hill accepted a camp offer. Then came an evaluation gem in quarterback Nathan Peterman, who showed out in Knoxville, earned an offer and went from virtual unknown to leading his high school team to a Florida state championship appearance in a season that has him widely considered the best quarterback prospect in the Sunshine State.
Linebacker Otha Peters and defensive end LaTroy Lewis were next, followed by local athlete Cody Blanc and Georgia receiver Keithon Redding a day later. The Vols weren't done in July as they added four-star JUCO defensive tackle Damien Jacobs and local kicker George Bullock at the end of that month.
With the class's core in place, the Vols welcomed its biggest commitment of the class on Aug. 5 when star middle linebacker Dalton Santos stunned everybody by picking the Vols over Texas A&M and Alabama. After the Santos commitment, UT began reeling off some big names that currently have the Vols 10th in the Rivals.com rankings. Four-star talents CB Kenneth Crawley, S LaDarrell McNeil, WR Jason Croom, DE Trent Taylor (a decommitment from Miami following the Shapiro fiasco) and DT Danny O'Brien came throughout the season.
Despite a disappointing, injury-plagued 5-7 year, the Vols haven't felt much of an effect on the recruiting trail. Needing to address an obvious dearth at speed all over the field, UT has received commitments from four burners out of their past five pledges. Athens (Ga.) running back Quenshaun Watson and cornerback Daniel Gray became Vols within two weeks of one another in November. Then, one of the big prizes of UT's class Alton "Pig" Howard and JUCO DB Otis Jacobs became Vols in December, sandwiched around a pledge from tight end Justin Meredith, who flipped from North Carolina after their coaching turnover.
So, now, two big questions remain:
Who will round out UT's class?
Who will be asked to look around or who decommits on his own?
The list of players UT covets is long, though the one that could conceivably wind up Vols is much shorter. Like most teams out there, UT wouldn't turn away a marquee defensive lineman, and there are still several solid options that could wind up in orange. Former Alabama defensive end Darrington Sentimore will sign with someone Wednesday, and UT is thought to be in good shape. With Denico Autry off the board, UT has turned its attention to his teammate and current UT commitment Damien Jacobs, who will also sign Wednesday and is being courted by Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Florida.
If Alabama takes Florida State decommit Alphonse Taylor, the Tide may not have room for massive defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, who has the Vols as his other finalist and would be a terrific pickup at a major position of need. UT wants at least three of the above-mentioned players, and if they can't close on them, Humboldt, Tenn., DT Tevin Bryson, a sleeper gaining recent attention from several schools, may get an offer. (I predict the Vols will wind up with Sentimore, McCullers and either Jacobs or Bryson, but not both.)
Besides defensive line, the Vols' biggest remaining need is a marquee running back, and new RB coach Jay Graham is searching everywhere to land one. Stone Mountain, Ga., bruiser Mike Davis recently decommitted from Florida, and the Vols were named in his top three after a visit by Graham last week. While he is likely the top target, Arizona State jUCO decommitment Damien Williams may be the player who could help quickest. He visited Arkansas last weekend and is slated to see the Vols Jan. 13. While UT would love to sway Mario Pender from his FSU commitment, he appears solid. The Vols also are trying to get back in the race of LSU athlete commit Davante Borque as well as uncommitted David Perkins and Beniquez Brown, all as running backs.
The Vols have kept visiting Jordan Diggs, a South Carolina legacy who looks like he'll play safety in Columbia, as well as a duo of wide receivers, Cordarrelle Patterson - a former UT lean - and Quinshad Davis. The Vols would love to get either Patterson or Davis, but there is ample competition for both.
As for those looking around, Santos tells UT recruiting sites he's solid, but he's visiting Arkansas and remains at least interested in A&M; and Peters has continued taking visits. The Vols look like they'll hang onto both of those needs as long as defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon hang around.
The three most likely to wind up elsewhere right now are Jacobs, Crawley and McNeil. Jacobs is in danger of signing somewhere else on Wednesday, most likely Mississippi State, though UT desperately wants to keep him. Distance worries the Vols on McNeil, and Crawley has taken other visits and has never stepped foot on UT's campus.
It's going to be a wild ride to National Signing Day, and Rocky Top Talk will have all the news leading up to it.