KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It's quiet now on the Tennessee campus. The students who took to the streets to scream about football coach Lane Kiffin's defection to USC blend in with the rest of the masses bound for class. On the giant rock between the music building and the academic center for athletes, upon which students painted a profane goodbye to Kiffin on the night of Jan. 12, someone has painted a birthday wish to some guy named Jay.
In the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center, site of so much drama in the past 18 months, reality has set in. The firing of Phillip Fulmer in November 2008 and the subsequent hiring and departure of Kiffin have turned a proud program into a rebuilding project. Because of the turnover, the players who didn't leave the program are more jaded than most 10-year NFL veterans.
"It's just another year for most of us; especially for me," senior receiver Gerald Jones said this week. "I've had a different coach every year I've been here. Three different head coaches and five different position coaches."
Derek Dooley understood this when he took the job. In most situations, players will buy into the new guy's message before the first snap of spring practice. Dooley knew building trust in Knoxville would require more time. "The players, when I got here, had been through something no other college football player has," Dooley said. "With it, there was a tremendous breach in trust -- how they would perceive it -- from the administration and a coach over what's happened the last two seasons. So you inherit a squad that's not going to open their arms up and say, 'Tell us what to do, coach. We're in.'"
Justin Wilcox, the defensive coordinator Dooley hired from Boise State, echoed that sentiment. "You don't walk into a situation like this and lay down this grand speech about how things are going to change and this is how it's going to be," Wilcox said. "You've got to earn their respect. It's a two-way street."
Dooley and his staff will earn everyone's respect if they can salvage a winning season from the mess they inherited. While Tennessee's defense is thin, it features some talented young players such as safety Janzen Jackson and lineman Montori Hughes. The offense, however, must replace all five starters on the line as well as its quarterback and tailback. "The biggest surprise is the amount of inexperience we have at so many positions," Dooley said. "There's probably not a program out that that's ever gone into a new year with five new offensive linemen, a new quarterback and a new runner. It's challenging. The good news is we've got some good young talent. The question is how fast will they grow?"
When Dooley arrived, the situation wasn't so dire. The Vols had lost tailback Montario Hardesty to graduation, but Bryce Brown -- the nation's top-ranked recruit in the class of 2009 -- waited in the wings. And while Tennessee lost four offensive linemen, the Vols had sophomore stud Aaron Douglas returning at tackle.
But Brown didn't come out for spring practice, and while he remains on Tennessee's campus to finish the spring semester, it's a safe bet he'll wind up playing somewhere else in the fall. The smart money is on Kansas State, where his older brother Arthur just transferred after leaving Miami. Douglas, meanwhile, simply wasn't happy playing for the program where his father, David, was a star. After much deliberation, Douglas elected to leave.
The transfer tilt-a-whirl hadn't stopped spinning after Douglas departed, though. Last week, senior quarterback Nick Stephens left the program. Stephens failed to beat out the struggling Jonathan Crompton in 2008 and 2009 and it didn't appear this year's staff would afford him the opportunity to compete with junior college transfer Matt Simms and freshman Tyler Bray.
With the exception of Stephens, there probably isn't much Dooley could have done about the transfers. "I didn't think that I would lose a starter. That part probably surprised me," Dooley said. "But when you see what the issues were and why they came here and the problems they were having, it's not because of me being here. It's something that's been brewing for a long time."TRUTH & RUMORS: Dooley earns Majors' respect
While it would be easy to blame Kiffin for all of Tennessee's issues, it would also be unfair. Even when he expected to coach the Vols in 2010, Kiffin insinuated this season would be tough. His departure certainly created additional problems, but other struggles took root back in 2005, when Fulmer's staff's recruiting began to slip. That 2005 class included some excellent players -- defensive tackle Dan Williams, linebacker Rico McCoy and center Josh McNeil, for example -- but it also included too many misses who either didn't produce or got bounced from the program for disciplinary or academic reasons. The same story replayed in 2006 and 2007, but Tennessee still had some great players in the program from earlier classes. The recruiting deficiencies didn't manifest on the field until 2008, when the Vols limped to a 5-7 record and Fulmer was fired.
Maybe Tennessee wouldn't be in these straits had athletic director Mike Hamilton acted sooner and pressured Fulmer to revamp his staff with more aggressive recruiters. But hindsight can't help Tennessee. The Vols can only think about the future.
No one will have a greater effect on Tennessee's immediate future than offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, the former Chicago Bears assistant charged with finding the correct five players, putting them into the correct positions and whipping them into a cohesive unit by September. On Tuesday, when asked for his evaluation of the tape of last weekend's scrimmage, Hiestand minced no words. "We've got a long way to go," he said.
With no experienced centers, the Vols had trouble even getting the snap to the quarterback. But Hiestand and Dooley think they've found their center in junior Cody Pope, a Californian who eats no meat. They love the athleticism of sophomore left tackle Dallas Thomas and they've been pleasantly surprised by the progress of 6-foot-7, 320-pound early enrollee Ja'Wuan James at the other tackle.
At quarterback, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw will have to choose between Simms, the son of Phil and brother of Chris who had his issues at Louisville before leaving for El Camino (Calif.) Community College, or Bray, the 6-6, 192-pound early enrollee who will need an intravenous drip of Muscle Milk this summer to bulk up enough to survive hits from SEC defensive ends. Chaney would rather his quarterbacks have a chance to learn behind a more experienced player, but that isn't an option now. "Tyler Bray's a high school kid. Matt's on his third offense in three years," Chaney said. "It's hard on those kids. I have a lot of empathy for them."
Simms understands, though. He was recruited to Louisville by Bobby Petrino, who bolted for the Atlanta Falcons shortly before Simms signed. "Three weeks before Signing Day, he left," Simms said. "I was like, holy ..." So when Kiffin left the night before mid-term signee Simms was set to start classes at Tennessee, Simms wasn't as shocked as most Vols. He knows it's a business.
That's precisely what Gerald Jones' mother told him before he moved to Knoxville. He wasn't sure what she meant at first, but he understands now. So do the rest of the Vols. And even if it takes Dooley and his coaches time to earn the players' trust, Dooley can take some comfort in the fact that the turmoil of the past 18 months has forged a bond among the players who were its victims. No matter who coaches them or how many snaps they've played before this season, Tennessee players will fight for one another. For now, that's going to have to be enough.
"Coach Dooley could leave next year," Jones said. "You never know. But when we're between the lines, we're playing for the person next to us."