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May 3, 2012
Tennessee already has verbal commitments from five juniors, including a pair of Rivals250 prospects in Memphis (Tenn.) White Station defensive end Jason Carr and Cleveland (Tenn.) Bradley offensive tackle Austin Sanders.
For comparison's sake, none of Tennessee's 2012 signees committed until at least July. The only two 2012 prospects who committed to Tennessee before July eventually signed elsewhere, as Gainesville (Ga.) North Hall running back Imani Cross chose Nebraska and Mableton (Ga.) Pebblebrook outside linebacker Khalid Henderson landed at Kentucky.
Of course, part of the reason for Tennessee's faster start is due to the changing nature of the recruiting game, as more and more prospects across the country are verbally committing before they've finished their junior year of high school. But it also reveals that recruits aren't hesitant about committing to a college where a coach's future is in question.
"It was not an issue for me," Winter Garden (Fla.) West Orange linebacker Corey Vereen said.
Vereen expects Dooley to have much more job security by the end of the season. Although Tennessee went 5-7 last year and owns an 11-14 record in Dooley's two-season tenure, Vereen envisions brighter days ahead.
After visiting Tennessee's campus, Vereen has a sense that Tennessee would turn the corner this season. He believes in Dooley. He likes new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri. Where some might see a program in limbo, he sees a team on the rise.
"Under Coach Dooley, the leadership is incredible," Vereen said. "It can only go up from here.''
Tennessee's situation isn't all that unusual. Last year, Arizona State's Dennis Erickson was described as a coach on the hot seat, yet it didn't stop him from generating some early recruiting buzz. Arizona State had collected 25 verbal commitments by October, more than twice as many as it had ever recorded before at that point in the calendar.
But many of those recruits changed their minds after Arizona State's late-season struggles led to Erickson's firing. Arizona State finished ninth in the Pac-12 team recruiting rankings.
Tennessee now must try to avoid a similar fate. These five commitments represent a nice start for what could develop into a quality recruiting class if Tennessee has a winning season. But can they maintain that momentum if they struggle on the field this fall?
"The offseason for recruiting is about selling a dream," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. "The Tennessee coaches are certainly not going to talk to kids and say, 'Yeah, well we may have one year left,' or, 'We know we're under the gun here, but we want you to commit anyway.' They're talking about how, 'We're a young team, but we've got a lot of potential. We need guys like you to keep building momentum. Look at the positives of what happened last year for us.' Kids will listen to what they're told until something else comes up that either proves it wrong or makes them think twice."
Other schools face similar situations. After all, Dooley isn't the only coach entering this season under a bit of pressure.
Boston College went 4-8 last season to end a string of 12 consecutive bowl bids. The Eagles now must replace the ACC's all-time leading tackler in first-round draft pick Luke Kuechly and the school's all-time leading rusher in Montel Harris, who was dismissed from the team Tuesday after missing nearly the entire 2011 season with a knee injury.
That puts plenty of heat on Boston College coach Frank Spaziani, who owns a 20-19 record in his three-year tenure. The 2012 class that Spaziani signed was ranked 11th in the ACC, ahead of only Wake Forest.
Boston College has only two 2013 commitments thus far, but one of them comes from Manchester (Conn.) High tight end Andrew Isaacs, the nation's No. 182 overall recruit. Boston College's highest-rated 2012 signee was Christchurch (Va.) offensive tackle Win Homer, ranked 248th nationally.
Whether Isaacs actually ends up at Boston College remains uncertain. Isaacs describes himself as a soft commitment and says he's keeping his options open.
"The [BC] coaches understand this is a business," Isaacs told EagleAction.com. "They said they want me there and they know that right now I want to be there. I told them [there] could be a whole bunch of opportunities at other schools, but as of right now I really like BC, so they understand that."
Isaacs' situation underscores the importance of the upcoming season for Boston College's recruiting efforts. Can the Eagles hang on to Isaacs if they fail to earn a bowl bid again? How can they attract other Rivals250 recruits if they have a second straight losing season?
"Andrew Isaacs has always said his dream school is Boston College," Farrell said. "I think all things being equal, he wants to go to Boston College. I think he's a soft commitment because everybody knows Spaziani is on the hot seat. I'd say it's a very tenuous commitment and really contingent on what happens during the season and also what happens after the season. If BC goes 4-8 and Spaz is fired, who are they going to hire? Is that guy going to be able to come in and lure him back?"
Plenty of other prospects across the country could face similar dilemmas. Some already know how they'd respond in a worst-case scenario.
For instance, Sanders grew up a Tennessee fan and wanted to be a Volunteer so much that he committed to his home-state team the summer before his junior year. Ever since he made that commitment, plenty of people have asked him what he thinks about Dooley's future.
Sanders looks forward to playing for Dooley and calls him an "awesome coach." He isn't worried about the possibility Dooley might leave because he expects Tennessee to have a winning season this year.
But if Dooley ends up losing his job, Sanders won't start looking elsewhere.
"You don't choose a school for a coach," Sanders said. "You choose a school because you want to go there."
If only every recruit had that approach.
In reality, plenty of prospects pick a school based on their relationship with a coach. When they fear that coach is on the way out, they're bound to have second thoughts. That's particularly true when rival schools start talking to them.
Sanders and Vereen both said they haven't encountered any negative recruiting from programs warning them about Dooley's precarious situation. Farrell believes that will change if Tennessee gets off to a slow start this season.
"Negative recruiting has a cycle," Farrell said. "You can't do it too soon or else it will be wasted. If you start hammering kids in April with negative recruiting, by the time September comes around, they're going to think you're just crying wolf. But if you wait until the right time and say, 'Look what's happening here. You need to think twice about your decision,' then it's much more effective.''
As long as Tennessee wins, those rival recruiters won't have much to say.
But if Tennessee doesn't turn things around this fall, the Vols may spend the winter searching for a new coach whose first order of business could involve repairing a decimated recruiting class.