No star-gazer

The fact Tennessee's signing class earned a No. 11 national ranking from Scout, a No. 12 ranking from Rivals and a No. 13 ranking from ESPN means a lot to the Vols' fans. It couldn't mean less to the Vols' coach.

Derek Dooley has no problem with the services who rate America's top football prospects; he just figures they aren't analyzing the same traits that he is.

"I do believe that most of those guys are strictly evaluating the size, speed and talent level of the player ... and that's fair," the head man said. "They're probably home-running it, but there are a lot of factors that go into (whether) that talented player can fit in your program and be a good player over the next four years."

Dooley's evaluations, by necessity, go much deeper than size, speed and athleticism. He must focus on issues that can sidetrack a prospect's career at Tennessee. For instance: Can he handle being away from home? Can he pass college-level courses? Can he cope if he doesn't play immediately? Can he accept a move to another position? Can he fit into Tennessee's offensive/defensive scheme? Can he have a positive impact on team chemistry? Can he take coaching? Can he deal with adversity?

The recruiting services may focus some attention on these periphery issues but, obviously, not as much attention as Dooley feels compelled to.

"In defense of the rankings," the coach said, "I don't think they hold themselves out to say, ‘We're evaluating their academics, we're evaluating their character.' That's not what they do. They evaluate just straight size, speed and athleticism of a player."

But that's OK.

"What I'm saying is, I don't think they're wrong," Dooley said. "What I have to do is evaluate more than that to determine whether they fit for our program or whether they will stay with us and be the right fit for our systems."

Because he uses an expanded set of criteria when evaluating a prospect, Dooley turns a deaf ear when folks talk about a prospect's 2-star, 3-star, 4-star or 5-star rating.

"I watch the film," he said. "I don't evaluate with my ears, I evaluate with my eyes when it comes to a player."

Some coaches concede that the recruiting services help them locate prospects. Dooley makes no such admission.

"I don't know how many stars or numerical position rank – I don't know any of that when I'm watching the film in February, March and April, and then in the season," the Vol coach said. "We just go through a real diligent evaluation process. If I like the guy and think he can help us, we take him."

This approach worried some Vol fans last summer, when Tennessee accepted commitments from an assortment of largely unheralded 3-star prospects. Some recruiting fanatics jokingly began referring to the head man as "3-Star Dooley." The coach was aware of the fans' concern but not affected by it.

"I think there was a lot of criticism early in the summertime about some of these guys," Dooley said, "but they really performed the way I had hoped their senior year. They had phenomenal senior years."

Since the coach is held responsible for players who never contribute, Dooley insists that his signees meet Tennessee's criteria, whether they get high marks from the recruiting services or not.

"I trust our process. I do," he said. "We're going to make mistakes but we continue to learn from them. I keep all our sheets on our guys and review them in two years and three years to see what did we hit on, what did we miss on.

"You've got to constantly grow as an evaluator, but I think the mistake you make is when you stray away from what you believe and what you see. You've just got to trust.

"If this thing doesn't work out, I can go to bed and say, ‘Hey, my guys didn't pan out,' instead of saying, ‘I shouldn't have listened to whomever.'"

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