KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After an NCAA investigation, a disappointing 2011 season and an offseason that's been filled with assistant coaching turnover, Tennessee needed some good news on the recruiting front.
The Volunteers got that by signing a 2012 recruiting class of 21 on Wednesday highlighted by a last-minute commitment by wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, one of the most highly touted junior college prospects.
"As tough of a recruiting climate in the past 12 months as I've been through," Dooley said Wednesday. "We gave a lot of ammunition to our competitors, and in this league it's hard enough when you don't give them ammunition, and we gave them plenty."
Dooley has been tasked with rebuilding the Tennessee program after Phillip Fulmer was fired at the end of the 2008 season and Lane Kiffin left for Southern California one year later. The Vols struggled with lack of depth because of attrition and injury in Dooley's first two seasons, but the fans' expectations for him to perform have risen, especially in light of the 5-7 finish to the 2011 season.
NCAA investigators reviewed recruiting practices by Kiffin and former basketball coach Bruce Pearl, though the Vols' football program did not face any major punishment by the time the NCAA wrapped up the probe in August.
Since the end of the season, Dooley was forced to replace six assistants who left for other opportunities, including defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
"All l I asked our recruits to do was to be patient when it all hit," Dooley said. "I'm going to tell you, it says a lot about their character and their commitment level to Tennessee, and the grit level they showed because they were getting barraged by some quality schools. They didn't flinch, they stayed with it.."
The Vols did lose out on linebacker prospects Dalton Santos, who signed with Texas, and Otha Peters, who inked with Arkansas, after both had previously committed to Tennessee, but Keith Niebuhr, southeast regional recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, said the class managed to remain strong without the pair.
"All in all, It's a good class," Niebuhr said. "Coming off a season where they didn't quite meet expectations, that's significant and it's filled with four-stars and potential difference makers."
Patterson, who played two seasons at Hutchinson Community College and was a high school teammate of Vols freshman quarterback Justin Worley, adds depth to an already strong wide receiver corps that includes Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. The Rock Hill, S.C., native caught 61 passes for 924 yards and 15 touchdowns and averaged 11.8 yards and had six touchdowns on 32 rushing attempts in 2011.
"He might be the best possible junior college player in the nation, and he should be able to contribute right away," Niebuhr said.
Tennessee's signing class was without a single offensive lineman prospect. Dooley said he felt that the Vols had added so many strong offensive linemen in the past two signing classes that he had an opportunity to focus instead on skilled player positions and defensive linemen, both areas in need of additional depth.
That showed in the makeup of the class. Dooley added three more wide receivers in addition to Patterson, three running backs, a quarterback, a tight end and four defensive linemen. Among the defensive linemen were junior college transfers Darrington Sentimore, a 6-foot-2, 273-pound former Alabama Crimson Tide lineman, and Daniel McCullers, a 6-foot-6, 380-pound lineman.
Included among the running backs was defensive back Deion Bonner, who was charged with stealing items out of the Georgia locker room while on a recruiting visit in April. He entered a diversion program and underwent counseling and community service and was suspended for five games during his senior season.
Dooley said the coaches were very diligent in trying to learn more about Bonner and the situation and felt the Columbus, Ga., native was truthful and remorseful and appeared to learn from the incident.
"When I say bringing in high character, that doesn't mean that I am never going to bring in guys that have made mistakes because I can tell you right now, I have made as many mistakes in my life as anybody," Dooley said. "I believe that he can come in and represent Tennessee the right way, learn from his mistakes and be a great example. Certainly it is not the norm, but ... at a key position, we felt willing to take the risk."
AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this story.