Derek Dooley knows how critical the 2011 recruiting class will be to his future success at Tennessee.
"This class is probably the most important to me and this staff," Dooley said Tuesday.
Dooley's second recruiting class is comprised of 27 players, including six who were early enrollees and are already attending classes.
Given the lack of depth virtually across the board, Dooley knew he couldn't afford to have players with question marks regarding eligibility. He said the class averages more than a 3.0 core GPA and a 20 ACT score.
"With where our program is, with the numbers we were working off this year, it was extremely important to me that we bring in a group of guys without a lot of risk of leaving or not being here," Dooley said.
Dooley cited UT's 2007 recruiting class, which was ranked third nationally by rivals.com, as an example of this. Four years later, Dooley said only about five players from that highly-ranked class were contributing to the football team.
The second-year coach can't afford to have a class with such little production on the field.
"It was very important to me that we try to get guys who, four years from now, we're going to say, 'You know what? That's a whole bunch of guys who had great contributions to the program,'" he said.
Arguably two of the most important players in the class were offensive lineman Antonio Richardson and tight end Cameron Clear.
Both are four-star recruits from the Volunteer state.
"When you do have quality football players (in-state), which we will every year, it's very important that we get them," Dooley said. "Two years in a row now, I've just been real pleased with the job everyone has done on our staff in getting some outstanding football players from Tennessee, and that's where it starts."
The Vols signed a total of seven players from inside the state, not surprising, tied for the most from any state.
UT also signed seven players from both Georgia and Florida.
That's 21 of the 27 signees from three states. But that number shouldn't alarm Big Orange fans. Georgia and Florida are two of the states producing the most college and NFL players.
"Certainly, when Tennessee has won in the past, they have done well in Georgia," said Dooley. "(Florida's) probably got more talent than anywhere in the country from a numbers standpoint."
Maurice Couch is one of the seven players who hails from Florida. The junior college defensive tackle immediately upgrades a unit that struggled mightily last year because of a lack of depth, size and talent.
Along with Couch, the Vols signed two other junior college players: defensive backs Izauea Lanier and Byron Moore.
All three JUCO players will have three years of eligibility remaining, but Dooley doesn't want to sign many of them unless it's necessary.
"We're not going to build on junior college players," Dooley said. "So when we do go after them, it's going to be at a significant position of need, and they are the right kind of guys."
Bringing in the right kind of guys for Dooley involves evaluating players based on five criteria:
1. Size and speed
2. Skill set relative to position
Dooley said the evaluating system paid off when every player who had committed to Tennessee leading up to Wednesday's signing day inked his name with the Vols, a rarity in college football.
"I think this is the first time I've ever been involved where every single player who committed never flinched," Dooley said. "They never wavered, they never got shaky, they never got confused, they never went on another trip of significance, and so I think that is a real testament to the quality of people that we had and the type of recruiting that we do, that's done for the long haul."
While the future is bright in Knoxville and optimism is swirling around the football program, the Vols are still at least one year away from truly competing for an SEC championship.
"I'm really proud of what our coaches accomplished, I really am," he said. "I think the future is bright."
Dooley said about 70 percent of next year's team will freshmen and sophomores, meaning future recruiting classes will need to be on par with Alabama's, Florida's and Georgia's.
"It's impossible to put together a quality signing class without a total team effort from so many people, starting with, first of all, the Tennessee brand," Dooley said. "What we are allowed to sell here is just incredible as far as our facilities, our campus, the history, the tradition, the game day experience, the fans."