FAYETTEVILLE, AR - NOVEMBER 12: Head Coach Derek Dooley of the Tennessee Volunteers signals to the sidelines during a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Stadium Stadium on November 12, 2011 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The Razorbacks defeated the Volunteers 49 to 7. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
SB Nation's offseason football recruiting series continues with a look at Tennessee from Vols expert Brad Shepard of Rocky Top Talk.
We're pleased to be joined by Volunteers recruiting expert Brad Shepard, who has lots and lots of insights on the state of UT football. Brad, Tennessee signed a consensus top-20 recruiting class in 2012. Did this meet, exceed or fall short of your expectations?
Once you factor in Tennessee having to replace seven assistant coaches, I believe you have to say last year's haul at least met expectations. The pleasant signing day coup of Cordarrelle Patterson certainly eased the sting of losing a couple of stud linebackers in the past week in Dalton Santos (to Texas) and Otha Peters (to Arkansas), but linebacker was a major need that simply wasn't met. I believe when you look at how difficult it is to consistently compete in the SEC, all Vols fans were hoping UT would add a few more marquee names than it did, but it was a stellar class nonetheless.
The problem is everybody else in the conference -- Bama, Florida, LSU, UGA, South Carolina, etc. -- had good classes as well. So, when you fall behind as the Vols have the past few years, just what do you have to do catch up? From a personnel standpoint, UT met some significant needs. There were other needs on which the Vols fell short. But, at the end of the day given the disappointing season, the inexcusable loss to Kentucky and the mass exodus of assistants, Derek Dooley and Co. did a pretty good job of kind of holding things together.
What was the most important thing that Tennessee did in its 2012 class?
Without question, addressing two major needs -- on the defensive line and at running back -- was the biggest accomplishment Dooley had on the recruiting trail. There are simply no words to describe the atrocity that was UT's running game last season, and with Tauren Poole leaving for the NFL, the stable of "talent" only decreased. So, the Vols went out and got three running backs with different skill sets. Though they didn't really land what some call a top-tier back, coaches believe Davante Bourque, a former LSU and Texas A&M commit, can be elite. He is an athlete whom LSU recruited to be a wide receiver and a prospect some were even recruiting to play safety, but the Vols like him as a runner, where he played and excelled in high school. Alden Hill is a bruising back that the Vols didn't have anybody like on last year's roster, and Quenshaun Watson is a track champion in Georgia. The Vols also lacked top-end speed at pretty much all positions. So, you have to believe that bringing in three running backs -- along with athlete Alton "Pig" Howard, who ran the ball in the Under Armour All-American game -- will upgrade the needs there.
With the graduation of Malik Jackson, the Vols desperately needed to build some quality depth along the defensive front, and they addressed some needs in the JUCO ranks by picking up former Alabama player Darrington Sentimore, who went through spring and should be an immediate starter. The Vols also stole early enrollee Trent Taylor from the Miami Hurricanes, and he earned some reps this spring and could help in the fall. Danny O'Brien is the first four-star prep defensive tackle the Vols have signed since Donald Langley several years ago. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if UT can get JUCO freight train Daniel McCullers qualified, it really could be a big boost in transitioning to the 3-4. McCullers is 6'6, 380 pounds, and could be the anchor nose tackle the Vols need to help ease the growing pains of switching base defenses.
What misses in the 2012 class must now be addressed in the class of 2013? Who are the top prospects Tennessee is pursuing to meet this need? What position(s) were not a need with the 2012 class due to returning players, but will now be a need in 2013 due to graduation/ attrition? Who are the top prospects Tennessee is pursuing to meet this need?
The biggest miss in the '12 class without question is at linebacker, especially inside linebacker, where Santos and Peters would have played and likely starred. The Vols were able to land three-stars Justin King and Kenneth Bynum to play inside 'backer and LaTroy Lewis to play "Jack" linebacker, but that's it in last year's class. And none of those guys are considered elite prospects, even though Dooley really likes the potential of Bynum and King.
The Vols are searching far and wide for linebackers this year, and they figure to sign at least five or six. Already UT has three Florida prospects committed. Corey Vereen (6'2, 237) is a nice-looking player who is being recruited to play the Jack linebacker. The Vols also have received commitments from a pair of guys they hope are evaluation gems who haven't been discovered yet. Dominic Zanca is a 6'2, 230-pound player from Altamonte Springs who played defensive line for his high school last year but the Vols are recruiting as a weakside backer. Just last week, UT picked up a commitment from Hutchinson CC outside backer De'Vondre Campbell, who was a Florida track star in high school. He is a teammate of Patterson's at Hutch and was coached by new UT graduate assistant Brandon Staley, so the Vols believe they got in on the ground floor of that one.
Other top targets for UT at linebacker are plentiful, but the guys the Vols have the best chances for are as follows:
-Jason Hatcher of Louisville (Trinity) has visited Knoxville multiple times and lists the Vols in his top five. Tennessee is recruiting him to play Jack and is probably one of the top two targets at the position. Quotes from his recent stories lead me to think UT might be the leader right now.
-Frank Herron of Memphis is drawing attention from many top schools, and LSU and Mississippi State appear to be UT's main competition for him. His friends Cameron Clear and Jarnell Stokes are already Tennessee athletes. He is being recruited also as a Jack.
-Isaac Rochell and Naim Mustafaa are Atlanta-area kids who are long shots, but the Vols would like them as Jack backers as well.
-Tennessee just offered Davin Bellamy, a three-star kid out of Georgia claiming offers from Georgia and FSU. The Vols have a strong chance there.
-The Vols were really high on Cameron Toney, who committed to Auburn, but UT isn't finished trying there. Buddy Brown out of Williamstown, N.J., is another option who seems to like Tennessee. Jaylen Miller, Peter Kalambayi and Yannick Ngakoue are other names who have mentioned UT at times.
-Walker Jones seems to be one of new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri's top choices for inside linebacker currently, but it'll be tough-to-impossible to overcome Alabama, where his dad and two brothers played.
The Vols desperately need to sign some offensive linemen this year after getting no commitments in the '12 class. Austin Sanders of nearby Cleveland is a big early commit for the Vols, and UT desperately wants to sign two or three more. The players who really seem to like Tennessee right now and are the highest-ranked targets are Derwin Gray of Friendship Academy in D.C., Darius Latham of Indianapolis (who could play defensive line), Tyrone Crowder of North Carolina, Dorian Miller of New Jersey, Christian Morris of Memphis, Tylar Reagan of Fruit Cove, Fla., J.P. Vonashek of Kingsland, Ga., and Ethan Pocic of Lemont, Ill.
Miller has the Vols in his top two along with Rutgers, and Gray visited during the spring and said the visit really stood out. Morris has Tennessee in his top two along with UCLA. Latham is really high on the Vols, who have told him he can play defensive line, and Reagan's former teammate Nathan Peterman was UT's quarterback commitment in the '12 class.
Which commitments in the 2013 class have been the most important for Tennessee?
There are two prospects I love in this class of six (so far) are Jason Carr and Austin Sanders, two Tennessee boys. Obviously, Tennessee was thrilled to get a commitment from Mackensie Alexander, who has since decommitted, but I believe the Vols are still right in the mix for his signature.
Carr is big because anytime UT pulls a prospect from Memphis that everybody wants, it's a big deal. He is the kind of player who recently has taken it all the way to National Signing Day, but for the Vols to get a quality jumbo DE that early from in-state was crucial. Sanders is a lifelong UT fan who got the offer and committed last year. With the Vols desperately needing offensive linemen, it's nice to have a guy who is a four-star player within a couple hours of Knoxville, and he is a tackle prospect that new offensive line coach Sam Pittman is excited about.
Which commitments to other schools have been the most damaging? Will Tennessee be able to flip the recruits committed to the other schools, and if not, who will Tennessee pursue to fill the need?
The Vols can always flip players ... it happens every year. Recruiting is recruiting.
It's damaging for a guy the Vols had made a lot of headway on like Derrick Henry to still be committed to Georgia despite taking multiple visits to Knoxville and loving new running backs coach Jay Graham. Clearly he, Derrick Green and Ryan Green are the top three running backs on UT's board, and UT desperately wants to get that marquee running back in this year's class. Those three guys or Alvin Kamara look like the best options right now for a "big name" back. Jordan Wilkins of Memphis is another player the Vols really like and are trying to make some headway on.
UT invested a lot of time on Toney, who consistently had UT in his top two along with Auburn. But he went ahead and committed to the Tigers, and so did Carl Lawson. Those were big blows for the Vols, who really felt they had a legitimate chance at both. There will assuredly be more, but those are three that stand out. I guess one more that should be mentioned is Hunter Bivin, the big offensive tackle who committed to Notre Dame. Bivin's mom grew up a big UT fan, so the Vols thought they had a chance there, but it wasn't to be.
I've already mentioned some of the names UT will chase in those guys' stead, but arguably the top prospect on the Vols' board right now is Henry, and I see Tennessee making an all-out push to get him to flip from Georgia. So, that's the one right now that will really hurt if he sticks with the red-and-black. Somebody wide-open like Jalen Ramsey, an in-state player considered a lean like Jalen Reeves-Maybin or a lifelong UT fan like Vonn Bell are another three guys that would be a big blow if they didn't wind up at UT.
How many recruits do you expect Tennessee to take in the 2013 class? If possible, can you provide a position breakdown?
I think UT will somehow find a way to get to 23 scholarships in this year's class. If that is the case, I see it shaking out like this:
Running backs: 2
Wide receivers: 2-3
Interior defense: 2-3
Defensive ends: 3
Outside linebackers: 2-3
Inside linebackers: 2-3
That's a wide range, but really, I think it depends on the best players available. UT absolutely has to take a running back, three offensive linemen, five defensive linemen, five linebackers, two corners and a safety, in my opinion. Everything after that is just based on the best players available. Also, you have to factor in the probability that a couple of wide receivers currently on the roster going pro, which would complicate the numbers a bit. It'll be intriguing to see who is on the roster now that won't be come fall.
Let's talk negative recruiting. Obviously, Tennessee has not won much under Dooley, and there has been a lot of coaching turnover. How much negative recruiting is being used against Tennessee on the recruiting trail? What is Dooley doing to counteract this? Is there more that can be done?
There is a ton of it going on right now. The Vols do play in the SEC, after all. There have been rumors that even Dooley's friends like Nick Saban and Will Muschamp have at least mentioned to some prospects that the situation isn't all roses and candy in Knoxville. Who knows if that's the truth, but if it is, who can blame them? All is fair in recruiting, and in the SEC, you're going to go head-to-head with rivals every year who are trying to get a leg up. (For what it's worth, I don't believe the Saban stuff. Why would he even need to talk about Dooley and Tennessee right now? He doesn't the way they are rolling.)
It is known for a fact that Arkansas and Oklahoma State were big negative recruiters against the Vols last year, and UT fans heard a bit of it out of West Virginia and Dana Holgerson during the Daniel Gray recruiting late in the game. Mike Gundy and crew filled Jason Croom with a lot of garbage that did them no good, and then LaDarrell McNeil mentioned the Cowboys also spouted off to him trying to get him to flip back to OSU at the end, too. Neither of those worked as they stuck with UT.
As for Bobby Petrino, well, he got his in the end, so there's really no reason to talk much in-depth about it. The Hogs were able to flip Peters, and that hurt. They also really laid it on Santos heavy, but nobody else was in that race after Texas offered.
So, yeah, the Vols have gotten a heavy dose of the negative stuff from opposing coaches. They're getting it some more now, I'm sure. Dooley has done a commendable job recruiting in the face of it, but there's really only one thing he can do to counteract it now -- win. Tennessee has pitched and sold the Vol For Life program in Dooley's tenure, and the coaches spend a ton of time developing relationships and preaching life after college and academics, but UT is coming off a dismal academic semester in the fall that coincided with the losing season, so the Vols will reap the negative fruits of that bad semester in recruiting as well, I'm sure.
The bottom line is everybody loves a winner, and everybody pokes holes in the losers while they're down. The Vols have to start winning, and if they do, they'll recruit at a high level. If not, it's going to continue to be an uphill battle.
One thing Dooley has been exceptional doing so far at UT is identifying quality players early in the process. The Vols have secured early commitments from multiple kids who get big time offers by the time the process is said and done. I think that early identification has helped offset some of the negativity. UT fans don't worry too much about getting players this early with no offers because, historically, those guys do get plenty of quality offers later. They've done a good job at recognizing talent. Now, they just have to win with it.
How would you describe the recruiting style of Dooley and this staff? How would you rate their effectiveness? Who are the recruiting assistants we should know?
It’s hard to speak to this staff because we’re still getting acclimated with them, but Dooley’s style is meticulous, detailed and a bit slow. On one hand, you’ve got situations where the Vols are just now offering some players who are top 100-ranked players. Well, it’s too late in most cases. "Waiting" to offer a kid like Vonn Bell, who would have jumped at UT’s offer and committed early before he blew up might have hurt the Vols in eventually landing him. UT offered right around national signing day – after UGA and UA. Not reacting quickly enough to UT leans in the past couple of years has cost the Vols several recruits. Eric Maclain (who committed to Clemson) and Geno Smith (who committed to Bama) are a couple who come to mind. Maclain was a UT commit and lifelong fan who never felt the love from Dooley’s staff. Smith was a Tennessee lean who the Vols dropped for too long following his lead recruiter leaving. I don’t think Dooley does a great job at keeping consistent contact with kids, and it costs UT some commitments. For somebody so detailed, that aspect lacks in my personal opinion.
But you cannot argue with his identification of key players early in the process. UT is often among the first to offer a bunch of players who wind up being highly recruited. You have to like that as a fan. Also, for the most part, players who commit to UT stick with the Vols. Sure, UT lost three or four last year with all the turmoil, but prior to that, Dooley hadn’t lost a commitment in his first two classes. That was pretty unprecedented in this age of recruiting – especially for a program that has been down.
It’s cliché to say it, but Dooley is really about establishing relationships with players through the course of multiple visits. He wants prospects to check out UT several times and he may need to visit with a player several times before offering or accepting a commitment. That way, he finds out if it will be a fit both ways. But I was a proponent of Lane Kiffin throwing out 250 offers early and seeing what stuck, so I’m not a huge fan of the deliberate recruiting style of Dooley.
The state of Tennessee doesn't produce a lot of elite talent, and what talent there is often poached by the surrounding schools. Discuss the challenge of keeping the scarce elite talent in state.
I don’t think this is a completely accurate assessment. No. 1, the state of Tennessee "historically" hasn’t produced a lot of elite talent, I’ll agree with that. But that is changing. There may not be a bunch of quality players, but there is enough this year and next year where the trend is shifting. Also, it just stinks that Memphis is in Tennessee and is closer to seven SEC schools than it is UT. Last I checked, that can’t be helped, though. We have a presence in Memphis, but UT will never "own" Memphis. It’s too far away. UT normally gets who it really wants in-state, but there is always a kid or two who go elsewhere. Patrick Turner back in the day went to USC, Marlon Brown went to UGA and Andrew Jelks went to Vanderbilt last year. Those were really the players the Vols desperately wanted and didn’t get. Two years ago, we got the top two players in the state and did the same in 2010. There simply weren’t that many in-state kids offered by UT last year, and in some cases when they were, they were not made priorities. (I’m thinking of guys like Brian Kimbrow, Jovon Robinson and Sheldon Dawson … all of which had UT offers but were not crippling losses).
This year will be a different story. UT has offered several kids it desperately wants – guys like Jalen Ramsey, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Donald Gray Jr., Christian Morris and Frank Herron. UT already has commitments from Sanders and Carr. A guy like Corn Elder may have an offer right now but isn’t hearing much from UT. Jordan Wilkins is down the list of the running backs the Vols covet. There is more talent this year in-state than normal, and I believe it’s trending in that direction in the future.
Also, next year is a big year. Already, Josh Malone and Jalen Hurd are early top-50 players, and Todd Kelly Jr. and Vic Wharton already have numerous big time offers. Tennessee is getting better at producing in-state talent, and the Vols have to do a good job at owning the state outside of Memphis and winning its fair share of wars in that battleground.
It’s always a challenge in Memphis because of the distance factor but also because of the politics. Tennessee constantly fights battles there and in the midstate because of Phillip Fulmer’s in-state recruiting failures. He burned a lot of bridges, and it has taken time to try to build relationships back with coaches. Kiffin alienated a couple of coaches from other major high school programs as well. Then, you’ve got the monster that is the Alabama Crimson Tide that is successful and always a pain to recruit against. There are A LOT of Bama fans in the state because, let’s face it, most fans are frontrunners and UA is the historic and present powerhouse. So, there are always going to be battles with the Tide. Now, you’ve got a couple of good recruiters at historically poor-to-mediocre programs like Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss, Dan Mullen at Mississippi State and even James Franklin at Vandy. It’s a challenge, sure. It's one Dooley has to meet or UT has to find someone who can.
Let's talk out-of-state recruiting. Tennessee relies on OOS recruiting for the majority of its top players. How has the resurgence of Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Tennessee hurt UT's efforts in those geographically close states? Is it possible for Tennessee to get enough elite talent if a few of those programs without at least a few of those programs being down?
It hurts. But it isn’t the end of the world. Let’s face it – Alabama gets who it wants right now. That just has to be accepted as the gospel and move on. Georgia will keep in-state kids besides the ones wanted by the Tide and get a few Florida guys like it always has. But Dooley is going to have a presence in Georgia, and that state produces enough talent that UT can win with the recruits it pulls from there, even if the Vols get players that Alabama and UGA don’t have room for.
I’m probably the wrong guy to ask that question because I believe UT has enough talent on its roster to compete with everybody not named Alabama and LSU right now. I do not think that the Vols are that far off despite the injury-laden embarrassment of last season, and despite how down they’ve been (four losing seasons in seven years), UT is still a name that sells itself in recruiting. The Vols simply have to win football games.
To answer your question as concisely as I can, it hurts that Alabama is poaching who it wants out of Georgia because UT wins some Georgia battles often when it is successful. But a school like Clemson (who you mentioned) and South Carolina and North Carolina (who you didn’t) hurts Tennessee much more. Also, when Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are winning some Memphis battles, that steals change from UT’s pockets as well.
I choose to look at Alabama’s success completely separate than UT’s getting back right now. They’re unrelated. Both programs can be successful, and they should be. Historically, both programs have been. What the Vols need to do is have a successful season – beating teams like Florida, Georgia, South Carolina – and the rest will take care of itself. What happened last year when Bama shut the gates on the state of Georgia? The Vols went to Texas and got commitments from Santos (who didn't stick) and McNeil, went to Ohio and got Hill and Lewis, went to Louisiana and got Bourque and Peters (who didn't stick). The Vols also maintained the strong presence they had in another talent-rich state (Florida). There are enough quality players to be successful. But, yeah, winning will loosen things up a bit. That has to happen. Or Dooley has to go.
In a related matter, how will recent firings at North Carolina and Arkansas help the Volunteers in those bordering states?
I don’t believe that the Vols have much of a presence in Arkansas these days, and that’s a state in which I wish Tennessee was more successful. I’m not certain that the Vols are really pressing for anybody there besides Hunter Henry, who already has eliminated UT. A bad Arkansas could ease their presence in Memphis and help UT some in the Midwest where we normally target a few guys.
North Carolina, on the other hand, is very intriguing. Not only are the Tar Heels going through a coaching change, but UT hired away Sam Pittman (who was UNC’s offensive line coach) and Jay Graham (who recruited the Carolinas for South Carolina). It is as essential for the Vols to have a presence in the Carolinas and Virginia as it is to have a presence in Georgia, so it’s going to be interesting to watch that region develop and see if they can be more of a player for prospects up there. Also, up the eastern seaboard, Sal Sunseri has been very successful recently. We’re seeing UT’s name for several Virginia and New Jersey recruits right now, and those are also areas that produced Tennessee talent back in the ‘90s and ‘00s. It is essential that the Vols take advantage of the UNC situation and also take a player or two from Virginia Tech. A good start would be five-star Kendall Fuller, who has the Vols in his top five but probably on the back end of that five.
How has Tennessee had to adjust its recruiting for the 3-4 defense? Will the Vols look to the JUCO ranks to speed the process of getting players fit for that defensive scheme?
It’s a total change. UT desperately needs to recruit a couple of Jack linebackers – the pass-rushing, stand-up defensive end/linebacker hybrid in the system. Also, the Vols are trying to recruit defensive backs who are used to playing press-man coverage. In the past, Tennessee’s defensive scheme was more zone-oriented, so with Derrick Ansley on board as the new cornerbacks coach, he’s trying to change that mentality with the players already on the roster. Ansley is a Nick Saban disciple, so you know he wants to be more aggressive than what the Vols are used to. McNeil and Deion Bonner signing in ’12 were major additions for a team who wants to be more aggressive in the secondary, but UT needs to go after some big, physical, athletic defensive backs this year also.
Other than Jack and big defensive backs, the Vols are targeting some beef in the middle and also going after some jumbo defensive ends. Right now, UT simply isn’t big enough anywhere on the field to make a complete change to the 3-4. That’s why you’ll still see some general 4-3 bases this year at times. It’s going to be a gradual change with some multiple looks, but there will be much more 3-4 with an eye toward completely transitioning. That can only be accomplished through multiple recruiting classes, so it’s going to take time. And Dooley has shown in his three years that he will beat the JUCO bushes for guys he thinks can come in and help immediately. UT already has one JUCO commit and has targeted several more including big defensive tackle Toby Johnson, so I think it wouldn’t be out of the question to see the Vols have another three or four JUCO players in this year’s class to help the transition.
Derek Dooley is seen by many as a lame duck coach on Rocky Top. Is that view shared by you? How pervasive do you think this view is among recruits? Do you see Tennessee giving Dooley a token contract extension for recruiting purposes? What must happen on the field for Dooley to keep his job and recruit at a level that will have Tennessee ready to beat bowl-bound SEC teams?
I don’t think Dooley is a lame duck. That would indicate that it’s just a matter of time before he is fired. I’m not necessarily on that wagon yet. Do I think he’s on the hot seat, though? Absolutely. To be completely fair, the man hadn’t lost a single game that he wasn’t supposed to lose all the way up until the end of last season.
Then Kentucky happened. And that changed things considerably.
Dooley lost a lot of support with that loss. Some think he even lost the team. The mass exodus of coaches wasn’t encouraging – even though Dooley brilliantly referred to it as a staff "correction" – and I think there is a general feel on the hill that UT needs to win eight games at least this season, especially with an easy schedule and so much offensive talent. Anything less may be (and probably should be) unacceptable. The general vibe we’ve gotten since last year is the players and coaches are more on the same page, and the player-coach relationship is a little chummier with this new staff. That’s what UT fans are hoping for, anyway.
I certainly think it is affecting recruiting. A lot of marquee names out there such as Vonn Bell, Robert Nkemdiche (not that I think Tennessee a chance with him…), Kendall Fuller and Jason Hatcher have noted that they like Tennessee and want to see what happens this season. I think it’s win now or you’ll really start to see a much more drastic impact on recruiting. When that happens, it’s normally time to go looking for another coach.
I don’t think you’ll see any token contract extensions for Dooley for recruiting purposes. We’re past that. With a new athletic director in Dave Hart who has a history of being successful at places like East Carolina, Florida State and Alabama, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that since Dooley isn’t "his guy" he isn’t emotionally tied to him. Does Hart want Dooley to be the guy? Definitely. Is he sure that Dooley is the man for the job? How can you be? There needs to be evidence of it on the field.
Dooley has done a good job upgrading the talent and cleaning out the sketchy atmosphere that permeated the program through Fulmer’s last few years and Kiffin’s forgettable season. But he needs to prove he can win. That happens now – especially with Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers all expected to be healthy.
Eight wins or more allows Dooley to keep his job. Seven wins, and that’s a no-man’s land where it just depends on the market. Less than that, and I think we’ll be going through a coaching change. UT fans who are clamoring for change may not know this yet, but this program is on fragile ground, and the last thing it needs is another coaching change. You simply can’t make another one unless you’ve got a major name lined up. It would behoove UT for Dooley to be the man so everybody who pulls for the Vols needs to be pulling for Dooley.
If he fails, this journey through the wilderness may not be nearing the end we’re all waiting to see.