KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley insists this season is different, even though it already has begun in a distressingly familiar manner.
His job may depend on whether he’s right.
Dooley’s first two years at Tennessee produced the Volunteers’ first consecutive losing seasons since 1909-11. The Vols have endured plenty of setbacks on and off the field.
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The off-field losses already have continued this year with the indefinite suspension of all-Southeastern Conference wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers a week before the Vols’ season opener Friday against North Carolina State at the Georgia Dome. Rogers’ suspension represented the latest unwanted headline for a program that has grown accustomed to adversity.
Last season, Tennessee simply wasn’t talented enough to contend in the SEC after injuries ravaged a roster that already lacked depth. This year, the Volunteers believe they’re better equipped to deal with this type of situation.
“The lesson from last year was not being held hostage by an injury or two,” Dooley said. “The deeper you are, the more talented you are at every position, that’s when you can better handle all these contingencies. I’m not saying we’re there. We still have a lot of young guys and inexperienced guys, but we’re certainly prepared for it.”
A look at Tennessee’s depth chart helps explain Dooley’s optimism. For the first time in his three-year tenure, Dooley isn’t relying heavily on freshmen.
Tennessee has played 32 freshmen over the last two seasons to match Florida for the most in the nation during that period. In their 2011 opener, the Vols’ first-team defense featured three freshmen: cornerback Justin Coleman and linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt. Tennessee’s projected starting lineup for the North Carolina State game doesn’t include a single freshman.
“We haven’t had to force playing guys who really aren’t ready,” Dooley said. “I hope that doesn’t happen. That’s definitely the biggest difference right there. We feel settled and comfortable with who we’re going into the game with. Now that doesn’t mean we know exactly how they’re going to perform. There’s a ton of guys on there who really haven’t performed at a high level in the SEC. It doesn’t mean they can’t. We’re pretty comfortable based on what we saw that these guys can perform.”
Tennessee hasn’t performed well enough lately.
The Vols went 6-7 and reached the Music City Bowl in Dooley’s debut year with a team that spent the season about 15 to 20 scholarship players below the 85-man limit. They followed that up by going 5-7 last season and ending the year with a 10-7 loss to Kentucky that snapped Tennessee’s 26-game winning streak in that rivalry.
Star receiver Justin Hunter tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the third game of the season. Quarterback Tyler Bray missed five games with a fractured right thumb. Linebacker Herman Lathers sat out the entire season with a fractured left ankle and safety Brent Brewer missed four games with a torn ACL in his left knee. All four players are back this year.
Even from his spot on the sidelines last year, Lathers could sense what needed to change.
“I learned a lot about our team,” Lathers said. “Some guys just didn’t trust the coaches, didn’t believe in other players. Our main objective during the offseason was just to build that trust, build that cohesiveness within each other and spend a little time with each other because if you don’t trust each other on the field, you’ll never accomplish what you want to accomplish. We did that, and we’re on key now.”
The Vols believe all the adversity has helped them mature. They can show how much they’ve grown up by rejuvenating a program that hasn’t won more than seven games in a season since 2007.
Their eagerness to write a new chapter was evident from their music selection at a team practice last week. At Lathers’ urging, the Vols went through their drills while listening to the Sam Cooke classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.”