Dooley: Vols ready to compete again in SEC
Derek Dooley finally is speaking the language Tennessee fans love to hear and haven't been able to use for too many years.
"You're not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore," Dooley boasted at Southeastern Conference media days.
He didn't stop there either.
"I feel like we got a team that can go toe-to-toe for four quarters with all the teams in our league," the Tennessee coach said.
Now the man whose job security depends on how many games his Volunteers win in his third season just has to back up all that tough talk. Tennessee has posted three losing records in the past four years and haven't finished ranked in the Top 25 since 2007. Dooley's first two seasons featured the first consecutive losing seasons in a century.
But the Volunteers hit a new low this past season. They lost their first six SEC games and finished at the bottom of the Eastern Division with the worst moment coming in the season finale with the end of a 26-game winning streak against Kentucky where the Wildcats pulled a switch using a receiver at quarterback for a 10-7 win.
Tennessee proved competitive in the first half of games in 2011 -- tied at 6 with Georgia before losing 20-12 and trailing South Carolina 7-3 through the first 30 minutes in a 14-3 loss. Against Arkansas, LSU and Alabama, the Vols simply were embarrassed and didn't have enough talent.
Now Dooley has a full complement of 85 scholarship players for the first time since he arrived on campus after the one-year tenure of Lane Kiffin. He has 17 starters back with the type of experience he just hasn't had his first two seasons.
"We're certainly deeper than we've been," Dooley said. "It's so important to be deep and talented because you can't allow an injury or two that happens to every team decimates your season. We're certainly more talented in many ways."
Injuries played a key part in last season's struggles. Receiver Justin Hunter tore his left ACL in September against Florida after 17 catches for 314 yards. Quarterback Tyler Bray broke the thumb in his right, passing hand against Georgia and missed five games. Linebacker Herman Lathers broke an ankle in the summer and never played a down.
"I think it had a bad impact on us. Our spirit was broken," Dooley said of those three injuries.
With the injuries, Tennessee averaged 332.6 yards on offense (104th nationally) with the lack of any run game miring down a passing attack that was second in the SEC with 242.5 yards a game. The Vols ranked 116th with a mere 90 yards per game, and Tauren Poole is gone. Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal will have to step up.
But the Vols are set to be a passing team with Bray back. The junior went to the Manning passing camp in July after throwing for 1,983 yards with 17 touchdowns and only six interceptions as a sophomore. He became the second player in school history to throw for 400 yards in a game, and he set the Tennessee record for completion percentage in a game at 82.9 percent when he connected on 34 of 41 passes against Cincinnati.
Receiver Da'Rick Rogers is back after leading the SEC with 67 catches for 1,040 yards along with Zach Rogers. Dooley brought in Coraderelle Patterson as a junior college signee.
"I feel like our offense can do anything," offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James. "We have running backs. We have receivers. We have a lot of skill guys. Our offensive line has a lot of depth now and a lot of experience. I feel like we'll be great."
Tennessee lost lineman Malik Jackson off a defense that ranked 27th nationally, giving up 340.5 yards. The Vols were the only team in the Football Bowl Subdivision with three freshman among their top five tacklers in linebacker A.J. Johnson, who had a team-high four interceptions that tied nationally for the most among linebackers.
Lathers is back healthy to provide leadership with Prentiss Wagner and Marsalis Teague in the secondary with Sal Sunseri, Alabama's former linebackers coach, the new coordinator.
"The guy knows how to win, and his scheme is proven and it's going to work for us if we just buy in," Lathers said. His scheme helps with our personnel, so it should help a lot."
Tennessee opens the season Aug. 31 in Atlanta against N.C. State with the home opener Sept. 8 against Georgia State. The Vols also host Florida, Alabama, Missouri and Kentucky with visits to Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
"We haven't had the seasons Tennessee's had in the past, but we're going to try to change that," Bray said.