Derek Dooley didn’t sound like a coach on the hot seat Thursday morning , even though if you listen to enough sports talk radio that’s exactly where he is as he begins his third season at Tennessee.
In fact, Dooley seems confident the Vols have turned the corner away from their recent struggles. It’s no secret Dooley inherited a mess left behind by Lane Kiffin and has been picking up the pieces ever since. But the Tennessee fan base is an impatient bunch, and last year’s 5-7 record that included a loss to Kentucky did nothing to enhance Dooley’s status.
The Vols won only twice after getting off to a 3-1 start, the season derailed in part by a series of costly injuries that included QB Tyler Bray and WR Justin Hunter. Tennessee was competitive in its games against East rivals, losing 20-12 to Georgia, 14-3 to South Carolina and 10-7 to Kentucky, but troubling was a lack of competitiveness against the West trio of Arkansas, LSU and Alabama in which the Vols were outscored 124-20.
Dooley admits Tennessee was not very good a year ago.
“We need to improve on just about everything because we really weren’t very good at anything,” he quipped on the final day of SEC football media days.
Perhaps more than anything, Dooley is counting on the Vols’ experience to help turn around the once-proud program. Tennessee returns 19 starters and its roster size has returned to 85.
“Two years ago when I was standing here, we were going into the season with a combined three starts,” he said. “Now we are going in with a combined 106. That level of experience really gives you a lot of hope.”
Dooley said the days of other
SEC teams dominating the Vols are coming to a close.
“There is a nice mood on our teams right now that you’re not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore,” Dooley said. “I feel like we got a team that can go toe-to-toe for four quarters with all the teams in our league.”
Two points of emphasis for Dooley this year are improving a dismal running game and becoming more aggressive on defense.
“We have absolutely no chance to compete for an SEC title if we run it the way we ran it last year,” Dooley said. “We had some respectable statistics in some areas, but I never felt like we impacted the game from a negative play standpoint, from a turnover standpoint, from a sack standpoint. We are going to try to be a little more aggressive on defense.”
Dooley said injuries to Bray, Hunter and linebacker Herman Lather broke the team’s spirit. All three are healthy for this season, offering hope that Tennessee football is on the road to recovery.
“We haven’t had the seasons that Tennessee has had in the past,” Bray said. “We’re going to try to change that.”
For Dooley’s sake, the change needs to happen quickly. Otherwise, it will be a different Tennessee head coach that will attend Media Days in 2013.
Contact Gregg Dewalt at 256-740-5748 or Gregg.email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @greggdewalt.