May 11, 2011

Dooley's Vols want more despite youth

A coach's second season often has meant big things in the SEC.

Florida and Auburn won national championships in Year Two under Urban Meyer and Gene Chizik. Alabama went undefeated through the regular season in Nick Saban's second season. Georgia won the SEC championship in its second season under Mark Richt. Arkansas made significant strides in its second season under Bobby Petrino. Mississippi State improved by four wins in its second season under Dan Mullen.

That trend could provide encouragement for frustrated Tennessee fans hoping the Volunteers can break away from three years of mediocrity and enjoy a breakout season in their second year under Derek Dooley.

It's a nice idea, but Dooley warns against counting on it because Tennessee's roster is filled with freshmen and sophomores. The way he sees it, Tennessee's program is much like that of a team in its first season of a new regime.

"I think it's easy to say the second year is always easier than the first year," Dooley said recently. "But you also need to understand the circumstances when we got here. We were in the unique situation of having had three new head coaches in three years, and the amount of attrition we had in some ways decimated the program.

"So, last year was kind of like Year Zero and now we're heading into Year One. I hope we make a big jump. But I also know heading into the season, there is a lot of youth and inexperience. We'll do the best we can."

That isn't necessarily what Vols fans want to hear. They want to resurface as a SEC championship contender and return to the days when a 10-win season was a disappointment on Rocky Top. But Dooley is painfully honest, whether talking to fans or players.

"I've always felt like - and I tell the team this - that you should call it like you see it," he said. "I try not to sugar-coat or misrepresent how they're performing. I feel the honest approach of where we are and how we're performing is the best way for me in coaching players.

"I don't say anything publicly that I don't look the players in the eye and tell them. That doesn't mean I don't love them or believe in them, but there are times I call it like it is. I'm always frustrated when you hear people say things and you know it's not what they really believe. That's not my approach. I've been critical, but I was proud of the last two weeks of spring."

That was a few days before quarterback Tyler Bray went 6-of-30 in the Orange-White spring game.

"We just need to come back and work on some things the next couple of weeks," Bray said after the spring game. "I was more frustrated with myself for not making throws. I was off on my accuracy, and it showed."

Still, Bray remains a reason for hope. The Vols were 4-1 after he moved into the starting lineup last November, and he passed for more than 300 yards in four games.

He was a freshman at the time. Indeed, Bray was one of six freshmen to start against North Carolina in the Music City Bowl. This season's team again is going to count on freshmen - and a lot of sophomores - to play key roles, and SEC stadiums aren't the best place and time for youth to thrive. Freshmen and sophomores comprise nearly three-fourths of the Vols' roster. That lends hope for the future - but perhaps not the near-future.

"There certainly is not a lot of history of a team with over 70 percent of the roster being freshmen or sophomores playing championship football week in and week out," Dooley said. "The good news is I feel very proud of the type of players that we have coming in and in those two classes. I think they have the size, speed and athleticism that it takes to compete in this league.

Look out below
Ten times in the 13 seasons from 1995-2007, Tennessee finished in the top 25. But they haven't been ranked since opening the season No. 18 in 2008. In the opener that season, they lost to UCLA and haven't been back in the polls since.

Last season was the Vols' second losing record in three seasons and the third in six seasons. It was the sixth consecutive season Tennessee lost at least four games and the fourth time in that span the Vols lost at least six.

There is no doubt the talent level has fallen off. Tennessee had 38 selections in the five drafts between 1999 and 2003. But in the past eight drafts, through this year's, there have been just 30 draft picks, including 12 in the past four (six of those came in 2010).

Here's a look at how Tennessee has fared since winning the national title in 1998. There has been just once BCS appearance in that span - and it came in '99.

YearOverall/SECBowlCoach
19999-3/6-2FiestaPhil Fulmer
20008-4/5-3CottonPhil Fulmer
200111-2/7-1*CitrusPhil Fulmer
20028-5/5-3PeachPhil Fulmer
200310-3/6-2PeachPhil Fulmer
200410-3/7-1*CottonPhil Fulmer
20055-6/3-5NonePhil Fulmer
20069-4/5-3OutbackPhil Fulmer
200710-4/6-2*OutbackPhil Fulmer
20085-7/3-5NonePhil Fulmer
20097-6/4-4Chick-fil-ALane Kiffin
20106-7/3-5Music CityDerek Dooley
*-Won SEC East but lost in SEC championship game
"I feel they will be really good players over time. The key is how quickly they mature and become every-down starters."

Time and maturity have been in short supply in Knoxville of late because of the attrition that comes with three coaching changes in three years - Phillip Fulmer to Lane Kiffin to Dooley.

Transfers, dismissals and injuries have left the Vols without the luxury of bringing players along slowly. Eight sophomores were listed as offensive starters on Tennessee's spring depth chart; the defense had three. That's 11 projected sophomore starters - or half the starting lineup.

Though it may seem the Volunteers are a year away from resurfacing as a legitimate threat in the SEC, totally writing them off in 2011 wouldn't be wise for a variety of reasons.

For openers, Bray figures to be improved. Don't make too much of his spring-game struggles.

"Several things were different this spring than what he faced the last four or five games," Dooley said. "No. 1, he has a whole new receiving corps. He was very fortunate to walk into a situation where he had two excellent receivers [Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore] and an excellent tight end [Luke Stocker]. That makes a quarterback's job much easier.

"The second is we put a lot more on him this spring to see how much he can absorb and perform. It was a real challenge for him. I know we definitely put a lot more on him than last year. He came on late in the season and nobody had a book on him. Now, it's important to elevate his game and show the intelligence to handle all the different scenarios. I'm pleased with his investment."

Dooley also can be pleased with senior tailback Tauren Poole, who is coming off a 1,000-yard season despite running behind a line that at times started three freshmen. The linemen should be better with a year of experience and weigh training.

In addition, the secondary looks good and could be exceptional if junior free safety Janzen Jackson, who withdrew from school before spring practice, returns in the fall. The defensive line also has promise.

"We've definitely improved, but we have no room to take any steps backwards," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "I think we've had some guys who have shown up, but as a whole, we still have a ways to go before we're playing the way we want to play.

"There's always a sense of urgency about the need to improve on certain things and at certain positions. We'll go into the offseason with some positions unsettled, and that's OK. But we've got to continue to work in the weight room and through the summer so we can go out and compete at a high level."

Tennessee is not alone in that area. The SEC East doesn't shape up as its usual meat-grinder self. The other contenders in the East Division have issues, too.

Florida has a new coach in Will Muschamp and new schemes on both sides of the ball. There is no established quarterback, go-to receiver, feature tailback or pass-rusher. In addition, the Gators lost their best player recently when star cornerback Janoris Jenkins was dismissed from the team after a second marijuana arrest this year.

South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia is indefinitely suspended after appearing intoxicated and creating a disturbance at a life-skills seminar. His situation is so tenuous that there are rumors that South Carolina might accept the transfer of quarterback Russell Wilson, who is leaving North Carolina State. The Gamecocks' secondary also must show improvement over last season, and the linebacker corps has some issues, as well.

Georgia figures to rely heavily on freshmen, especially tailback Isaiah Crowell. He figures to be the starter when the Bulldogs open the season against Boise State in Atlanta. There also are questions along the offensive line, at wide receiver and at linebacker.

Therefore, it's unlikely a team has to be "great" to win the East. If Tennessee's young players stay healthy and improve as the season progresses, the Volunteers could be a tough opponent by October, when they play Georgia and South Carolina in Knoxville.

Tennessee finished 6-7 last season but was tantalizingly close to an eight-win season. The Vols appeared to have beaten LSU and North Carolina, but lost both games when extra time was put on the clock. LSU scored a touchdown on the final play of the game, while North Carolina won in overtime.

Those losses were especially difficult for Dooley to stomach, but he's tried to view them as learning experiences.

"All you can do when things don't go your way is look in the mirror to see what you could have done differently to prevent that outcome," he said. "Certainly those games hurt. I don't know other coaches that have been through anything like that. I'll use it as a lesson and work harder and try to do things better."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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