UT less 'fragile' after signing 17

Admitting that Tennessee's football psyche was in "a fragile state" when he took over on Jan. 15, new head coach Derek Dooley replaced fragility with ability by securing a solid haul on National Signing Day.

Dooley added 17 signees Wednesday to the eight mid-term enrollees already in school - giving the Big Orange 25 newcomers for the Class of 2010. And the new coach will continue looking. He admitted that he has "not closed out" recruiting for the incoming class if he can find a player who fits Tennessee's needs.

"I'm pleased overall with the guys that we have," Dooley said. "But, at the end of the day, we'll never know how they are until this class is evaluated three or four years from now."

The most heralded of Wednesday's additions are wide receiver Da' Rick Rogers of Calhoun, Ga., and offensive tackle James Stone of Nashville. Both are rated five-star prospects by Scout.com. The Vols already had one five-star prospect among their eight mid-term enrollees - defensive end Jacques Smith of Ooltewah.

Tennessee's 2010 class also includes a few sleepers. Defensive back Dontavis Sapp (Valdosta, Ga.), linebackers Raiques Crump (Adamsville, Ala.) and Martaze Jackson (Demopolis, Ala.) were accorded just two stars each by Scout. Dooley insists he did not sign a single prospect just to fill out the roster, however.

"Everybody's evaluation procedure is different," he said. "I evaluate with my eyes, not my ears and not on the computer. If I like a player and I think he can help us, I don't make sure he's rated a four-star or a three-star. That's me.

"There are several guys we signed who were not publicized as high-profile prospects. But not one of them did I take because we couldn't get somebody else. We took them because we believe they can really help our football team, build a good core on the team and help us on special teams. I think there's a lot of value in all of these guys."

The addition of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox from Boise State and the addition of 17 signees - all in the past 24 hours - caps a whirlwind start for Dooley, who was hired as UT's head coach less than three weeks ago.

"Nineteen days on the job feels like it's already been two years," he quipped. "When I got here that Friday night 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, and we really had to focus in one step at a time."

Step 1, of course, was to try and salvage a recruiting class left in disarray by the abrupt departure of predecessor Lane Kiffin.

"The first priority was to get some coaches in to help us hit the road recruiting, then putting all of our energy on the eight mid-term signees, which was in a fragile state, as well," Dooley noted. "I was real pleased that all eight of them came back. I thought that was a good first step."

Dooley decided to retain two members of Kiffin's staff - offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and linebackers coach Lance Thompson. Both played pivotal roles in averting a mass exodus of both Tennessee's veteran players and its recruiting commitments.

"I've really got to give a lot of credit to Lance and Jim, who gave a good personnel overview of our roster," Dooley said. "Then we spent all day and night going through recruiting tape because I was not familiar with all of these guys (prospects)."

With Signing Day rapidly approaching, the Vols appeared dead in the water. Somehow, though, they rallied to finish with a quality class.

"We had two weeks of recruiting and two official-visit weekends," Dooley said. "Tennessee has so much to sell, so 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 - selling who I am and what I believe, selling our coaching staff and where we're headed with the program."

Although the Vols' haul is regarded as a top-10 class, Dooley is not inclined to speculate on how good it might prove to be.

"There's no way I can sit here and project how good these guys are going to be two to three years from now," he said. "Today is really when the work begins ... how we coach them, how we mentor them, how we support them and how we develop them mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally. There are so many factors that go into how well these guys end up performing for the university and how good our teams are the next two or three years."

Although he understands that fans are fascinated by recruiting rankings, Dooley refuses to get caught up in the hoopla.

"In '07 we had the No. 3 signing class in the country, according to the experts," he recalled, "and today we have about 53 percent of those guys still on the roster.

"It ought to tell that what's really important is not just getting the guys but what we do after they get here."

Ultimately, that will be the key to fixing the fragile state of Tennessee football.

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