Man plans, God laughs
Tennessee's Derek Dooley estimated at last summer's SEC Media Days that he'd be taking the field in the fall with a roster composed of 70 percent freshmen and sophomores. He's got 19 returning starters for 2012, mostly juniors now. But is that a positive, given last season's gutting, galling results? Dooley paused for a moment in his office on the afternoon of his third spring game as head coach of the Vols. "You know, that's a good question."
The Vols went 5-7 in 2011. Tennessee's last 5-7 season, in 2008, followed a 10-win 2007 campaign and division title for Phil Fulmer. It was his second losing season in 16 full years as UT's head coach, and it got him fired. Dooley is now 11-14 in two seasons on Rocky Top, where new university leadership thought a fourth head coach in five years might be a bit much. But in six years? Almost sounds reasonable in these impatient times, where coaches like Turner Gill are being canned two years into massive rebuilding projects like Kansas. Three years is almost certainly not enough time in which to judge Dooley's reign in Knoxville given the maelstrom of misery he inherited, but if Tennessee doesn't turn it around on the field in 2012, it's almost certainly all he will get.
"We're not there yet," Dooley told SI.com, tracing the scars on the Volunteers left by Fulmer's ousting and Lane Kiffin's subsequent bolting. "But all those anchors are in the past. Between three head coaches in three years, five strength coaches in that short time, a change in the presidential level, a change at the athletic director level, the NCAA cloud hanging over our program, and of course all the attrition. It put us in a challenging position, but the good news is, that's a thing of the past. We have a lot more maturity. We're a little bit older.
"And sometimes, when you have a really bad season, there's the embarrassment pushing you, of 'We don't want this to happen again.'"
The Vols' 2011 season seemed in many ways to be happening to them rather than being a product of their own conscious efforts. Starting tailback Tauren Poole sustained a back injury against Florida in Week 3, right around the time star receiver Justin Hunter was felled by a torn ACL. After a bye week and a breather against Buffalo, Tennessee entered a peril-fraught patch of scheduling that saw the Vols face, over a five-week stretch, eventual division champs Georgia, then-No. 1 LSU, then-No. 2 Alabama, then-No. 13 South Carolina and then-No. 8 Arkansas. Starting quarterback Tyler Bray broke his throwing-hand thumb against Georgia and missed the entire rest of that crucial run. Poole took another blow with a hamstring injury against Georgia. Starting strong safety Brent Brewer tore his ACL over Halloween weekend against South Carolina. At one point, against Alabama in Week 8, the Vols were reduced to yanking freshman quarterback Justin Worley's redshirt. Against the eventual national champs, that went about as well as one might expect.
Tennessee lost all five games, got Bray back out on the field before he was quite able to grip the football again, righted itself briefly against Vanderbilt -- and then locked down a losing season with a 10-7 loss to a Kentucky team that was itself starting a wide receiver at quarterback. The injuries had piled up catastrophically, and Bray was that week reportedly battling both his own unhealed hand and a case of the flu, but Kentucky football had been Tennessee football's binky for 26 years of the nation's longest uninterrupted active rivalry win streak, always there to soothe frazzled teams with a season-ending victory. Knoxville isn't a small town, but it's good at acting like one, and sports radio erupted with cries of ,"Well, if he can't even get Tyler Bray to wear a surgical mask to class from getting the sniffles, I don't know if Derek Dooley's the man for this job, PAAAOWL." Sourced and unsourced reports flew of rancorous locker room discord. Assistant coaches peeled off for other jobs.
Dooley, putting perhaps the only positive spin possible on such a finale, said the December downtime "really allowed me a lot of time to reflect on what we're doing as an organization, to ensure we don't go through that again.
"I've told the team this. Where I let the team down first was making too many excuses for them because they were young. I told them I failed them in that regard, that our level of accountability to do things the way we need to do them has got to get better, and that it starts at the top. Secondly, you have to be able to recruit and build depth to where two or three injuries don't devastate you, and unfortunately we weren't there in our program.
"We had about 13 seniors, and really only three that played. So you can imagine how hard that was on some guys. We had a sophomore class that was kind of the bulk of the team, who were not quite ready to be leaders. They weren't quite mature enough to understand what it takes to win football games. And then you had a freshman class, 17 of them playing, who were just trying to survive."
An offseason of rarely paralleled bleakness did lead to a highly regarded signing class. Now, who will lead the Vols in the huddle? "That's what we're waiting on," Dooley said. "I told the offense the other day, I like to ask them who our bell cow is in this room. If we don't have a bell cow, or two bell cows or three bell cows, it's hard to make that jump as a team."
An answer may come in the form of pure returning talent, from three crucial pieces whose 2011 careers were cut short.
Some reassembly required
For perhaps the first time in his Tennessee career, Bray actually looks like he's carrying the 213 pounds he's credited with in the media guide without including his cleats and helmet. While we waited our turn to speak with the players this spring, Bray horsed around with Antonio Richardson, his new starting left tackle, and a young child who'd been taking in practice. The two took turns autographing a ball for the boy, and Richardson tossed him his gloves, with Bray cheekily instructing him on the finer points of selling the gloves on the open market. When the cameras came up, Bray snapped to, all business -- another first. Whether it's his impending eligibility for the NFL draft, the weight of keeping the merry Bray-Hunter-Rogers band together for what may be its final season or that he's just gotten better at putting his game face on for the press, something or someone has gotten to Bray, and the "throw to randomly selected open receiver first, ask questions later" quarterback we've known is no longer in evidence. "We tended to get lackadaisical" in the past, Bray said, "and kinda go all over the place. It's fun to watch, but it's not good."
Bray missed the direst four games of that midseason horrorshow last season -- LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas -- and turned in performances against Vanderbilt and Kentucky that displayed with painful clarity how far he was from fully recovered. It was quite the comedown from a freshman campaign that had brimmed with promise and broken records, and Dooley, for his part, credited Bray's sophomore tribulations for his work ethic entering his junior year.
"When you have early success, it's very difficult to recognize the amount of work and diligence it's going to take for you to have consistent success," said Dooley. "Tyler's got a lot of great qualities as a quarterback, and a lot of things that he has to continue developing on, and he's recognizing that, and hes getting better. But the most important thing has been his attitude, his outlook that 'Hey, I'm recognizing this is going to take a lot of work, and I'm willing to put the commitment into it.' A good quarterback is not just measured on statistics. He's going to get measured on wins and losses, and how he performs against top teams, and how he performs in clutch situations. He hasn't put together a body of work for that just yet."
Bray's second year under center for Tennessee began with a 5-for-30 outing in the spring game and ended with the streak-snapping loss to Kentucky. "Completing a few more passes, that'd help," Bray deadpanned when asked how he was treating this year's Orange and White game. He improved against the first team defense, going 14-for-26 for 156 yards and a touchdown. But Bray will be the first to pipe up (well, maybe the second after Dooley) and tick off everything he still has to work on before September: Decision-making process. Footwork. Mechanics.
Meanwhile Hunter, no bruiser to begin with, estimated he's still down seven pounds or so from his pre-ACL surgery weight, and will focus on regaining size and strength in summer workouts. Cloaked in a protective non-contact jersey, he candidly admitted his knee "doesn't feel normal at all." Defenders gave him a spun-glass berth on the field this spring, but he took a few licks and reacted well, according to his coaches. "He's taken a lot of snaps, and he has been knocked down," said Dooley. "He's been on the ground, he's jumped, he's blocked. So he's ready to go. The only thing he's missing are his strength levels."
As the closest thing the Vols have to a sure thing on the field, the Bray-Hunter-Rogers trio's progress is tightly monitored. "There' still a lot of continuity," said Dooley. "They haven't lost that. But they've got a lot of work to put into this summer, in the details. All that detail is the difference. And of course they have a real chemistry, the three of them, and hopefully that will pay dividends."
On the defensive side, one broken ankle last summer quite literally gutted the Vols, knocking middle linebacker and emotional defensive talisman Herman Lathers out for the entire 2011 season. "It feels a little weird still," Lathers said the afternoon before the spring game, flexing his latest repaired joint, "but I'm a hundred percent in terms of speed." He's also worked through groin and elbow injuries this spring, but has maintained a stranglehold on his starting job.
No stranger to steep comebacks -- he beat bone cancer as a child, had his spleen removed after his freshman season while battling a blood disorder, and was recovering from shoulder surgery when his ankle fractured -- Lathers' return is "the story of the spring," Dooley said. "He's got such tremendous respect on the team for what he's been through. Getting him in there for those two scrimmages and having him see, 'You know, I can do this, I'm back,' has been a real boost for him and a boost for our defense." Even with depth concerns at the position (the two-deep boasts converted defensive linemen and former fullback Channing Fugate), Dooley calls the linebackers the strength of the defense with Lathers back.
Look with favor upon a bold beginning
A complete restoration of the Tennessee passing triumvirate won't be enough on its own to vault the Vols to success in the SEC. They finished a bewildering 116th in rushing among FBS teams in 2011, with a persistently and repeatedly injured Poole making inconsistent progress behind a patchy line. With Poole off to the Panthers, the top tailback designation will fall to junior Rajion Neal or sophomores Marlin Lane and Devrin Young, all of whom are listed on Tennessee's post-spring depth chart with no No. 1 designation. Incoming freshman Davante Bourque, a Rivals four-star player out of Crowley, Louisiana, will join the chase in the fall.
"We've got three guys right now," said Dooley, "who are showing things that weren't shown last season by anybody." He praised Lane's consistency and Neal's speed and said he's been surprised by Young's explosive, big-play ability in spring ball. "I wasn't sure Devrin could play running back at this level," Dooley said, "but there's no doubt in my mind he can after watching him this spring." Apart from the work the tailbacks have put in, Dooley cited the renewed commitment to blocking made by the wideouts as one of the biggest factors in moving the ground game forward. "Da'Rick's a great example," Dooley said. "He's probably made more blocks this spring than he's made in two years."
Those backs will run behind the oft-maligned offensive line Dooley called "sort of a microcosm of our whole team. When I got here, we had on our entire roster one player who'd started on the offensive line, and he'd started three times. Now when you look at the number of snaps that our guys have had, it's a very experienced group." (This is about where we got sidetracked talking about whether that experience counted in the team's favor or against it.) "They've had an outstanding spring. They're playing with a little more purpose."
Though the returning O-linemen boast 99 combined starts, the guy drawing eyeballs this spring was the new No. 1 left tackle, a sophomore with zero starts to his credit. It helps that he's the biggest body on the line, clocking in at 6-foot-6 and 329 pounds. Did we mention his name is Tiny?
"You want the whole story? You got time?" Antonio Richardson asked, tracing the etymology of his nickname back to his sophomore year of high school, through years of being called Biggie Smalls, then Smalls, then Big Tiny (our favorite) and finally Tiny. Richardson is a genial giant, and has drawn raves from his coaches despite being the most inexperienced player on the line.
"Tiny's one of those personalities," said Dooley. "He's got tremendous leadership ability, he's got a great smile, he's very humble and he's a likable person. He's so driven to be good. He's been a real boost for us in that huddle."
The Vols have also gotten a boost from a near-total coaching turnover, which brought a new defensive coordinator (former Saban assistant Sal Sunseri), strength and conditioning coach and fresh faces coaching cornerbacks, safeties, running backs, both lines, tight ends and special teams. After most of the 2011 assistants left for other FBS jobs, is this an ill omen for a program entering a must-win season or a cleansing purge? This is Tennessee. It could be both. But the shuffle has brought one favorite son back to Knoxville: The most welcome new face has to be former Vol running back and program hero Jay Graham, plucked from South Carolina to coach his native position at his alma mater.
Dooley pointed to the hiring of fellow Sabanite Sunseri as the biggest offseason staffing jolt. "I have a history with him, and we talk the same language," Dooley said. "We've been in the same organization, so there's a lot of continuity at the coordinator level. And then a lot of these coaches have worked together in the past, so it's as seamless a transition as I've ever been a part of."
It remains to be seen, of course, whether the on-field adjustments will go as smoothly. Sunseri favors a 3-4 defense over the Vols' current 4-3 makeup, though the coaches hope to deploy both looks throughout the season. Sunseri has nine returning starters to work with, including Brewer and Lathers, and precious little time: Tennessee leads off this year's Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic with a Friday night game against North Carolina State. It's far from a formidable early opponent, but there are few higher-profile settings in Week 1.
Breeding lilacs out of the dead land
The Orange & White game was full of hope, and holes. (And food-related trash talk: In one of our favorite spring traditions, the winning Vols side gets a steak dinner served on fine china, while the losers must settle for hot dogs on paper plates and, most cruelly, water with no ice, in the same dining room.) It's never easy to discern whether you're seeing offensive success or defensive struggles when it's teammate against teammate, so temper those quickening hearts at, for example, Lane's 106 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries, with the reminder that he went out against the second team defense. "OR" abounds on the post-spring depth chart. Young is tapped as the top return man, a position where Tennessee has experienced almost comical ineptitude for several seasons now. No starting field goal kicker or punter has been named, and no appetizing choices present themselves. The star receivers are back on form, but there's a void behind them. And the defense remains a work very much in progress.
But the Vols look better, albeit in spring ball, devoid as any spring ball is of much real meaning. It would be difficult not to look better than the last time we saw them, despondent in Lexington.
"I was never really as concerned about the future as most people," said Dooley. "These guys have been a fun group to coach, they're committed and they're working hard, and I know the results are gonna come."
Fair or not, they're going to have to. Tennessee opens the 2012 season on Friday, August 31, versus North Carolina State in the Georgia Dome.