Dooley expects more out of young Tennessee Vols
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)
There's one very obvious thing about the 2011 Tennessee Volunteers: They're extremely young.
''We know we're young. We know we aren't going to use that as an excuse for failure,'' coach Derek Dooley said. ''We have some guys who flashed a lot of good things last year but nobody really who played 12 games consistently in a championship way. So it's time to quit talking, get on the field and see what we can develop here the next few weeks before kickoff.''
Tennessee has been plagued the past few seasons by player attrition from back-to-back coaching transitions, and the Vols have had their fair share of injuries too. That's left them with just 26 upperclassmen on scholarship, compared to 27 sophomores and 26 freshmen.
Still, there's a lot of talent and potential among the Vols' youngest players.
''I think we're going to need them at just about every position; if not from a starter, from a role guy, from a spell guy and from a guy who can go out there and push the guy ahead of them to be better,'' Dooley said. ''It's hard to say you're not going to need them in some capacity.''
Tennessee will need them to play well fairly early in the season, too, if it wants to avoid a predicted fourth-place finish in the Southeastern Conference's East Division. After hosting Montana and Cincinnati, the Vols begin a six-game run that includes a trip to Florida, home games against Georgia, LSU and South Carolina and a trip to Alabama. Tennessee also travels to Arkansas in November.
The Vols finished the 2010 season 6-7 in Dooley's first year with the team, nearly scoring a major upset over LSU and a win in the Music City Bowl against North Carolina. They showed several flashes of potential but even more silly, youthful mistakes.
The returning players spent the offseason training with new strength and conditioning coach Ron McKeefery, working on their skills with one another and studying film and the playbook. Dooley said the returning Vols came back bigger, stronger and faster and appeared to retain a lot of knowledge of Tennessee's schemes. Now he's waiting to see if that will translate into improved play.
A few young players were thrust into major roles last season. Chief among them is sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray, who started the final five games of the 2010 season and led Tennessee to victory in four of those games.
Despite playing a limited number of snaps last season, Bray set team freshmen records by passing for 1,849 yards and 18 touchdowns. The tall yet gangly Bray lost his go-to targets in Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore and Luke Stocker but dedicated his summer to packing on some more muscle, memorizing the Vols' offense and finding rhythm with wide receivers Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter and center James Stone, all fellow sophomores.
''Last season I was going in and I kind of knew the offense but still was a little hesitant on some things,'' Bray said. ''This year I'm not at all.''
The offensive line is stacked with sophomores, but Tennessee got a combined 31 starts out of those players last season. The line struggled at times last year but still managed to pave the way for running back Tauren Poole to gain 1,034 yards.
Poole returns as a senior and one of the Vols' few elder statesmen, and the line has promised him a 2,000-yard season this year.
''They've come a long way,'' Poole said. ''They keep saying 2,000 yards, and that's bold to say that in this league. I just tell them to work hard and don't worry about the 2,000 yards. Let's just work it and let's just win. ''
On the defensive side, Tennessee will start the season with just one returning starter in the front seven, senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson. The Vols lost returning starting linebacker Herman Lathers at least for part of the season when the junior broke his ankle in June.
Jackson, who finished 2010 with 48 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and five sacks, will miss part of fall camp with a sprained right knee but is expected to return before the Vols open Sept. 3. He's expected to be joined on the line by sophomore Daniel Hood, a converted offensive lineman who impressed coaches with his defensive line play during spring practice, and sophomore Jacques Smith, who played in all 13 games last season.
Seniors Austin Johnson and Daryl Vereen are expected to start at linebacker in Lathers' absence. Vereen has the only start between the two of them, but both earned praise for their play during spring practice.
The secondary boasts significant depth, with safety Janzen Jackson returning from a five-month absence from school and football and joining fellow veterans Prentiss Waggner, Marsalis Teague and Brent Brewer.
''What we need from these guys is for them to come out to work every day and get a little bit better every day,'' defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. ''That's really the key. That's all we're focusing on - the small little details that add up, and the cumulative effect of that hopefully will get us where we want to go.''