Even Derek Dooley has to know in his heart of hearts Tennessee is a mess.
It's one that can be cleaned up in time, but let's be straight about this: Maybe the best thing the Vols' new coach has going for him right now is his surname. Dooley is son of one of the most respected men in the sport. Not being Lane Kiffin is a huge plus too. In Knoxville, those two things will get Vince Dooley's son through a season or two as Tennessee tries to cap its current oil spill.
|Derek Dooley has a bunch of issues to straighten out before the winning can begin. (US Presswire)|
• The Vols are on their third coach in three years. It seems a lifetime since Phil Fulmer was dominating the SEC and a bitter memory that Kiffin was even in town.
• Players are learning their fifth offense in six years.
• Tennessee is assured of having a starting quarterback with, at best, 10 career Division I-A pass attempts.
• An offseason bar brawl continued what some would suggest is one of Tennessee's most shameless traditions -- embarrassing off-field problems.
• Kiffin has become the gift that keeps on giving. The NCAA is interested in talking to assistant coaches and at least one former player about Kiffin's recruiting tactics.
• The once-mighty Vols have been picked as low as fifth in the SEC East.
"We've certainly had our bumps along the way and we'll continue to have our bumps along the way," Dooley said.
The best thing Tennessee can do is play. The ride from Jan. 12 -- when Kiffin left for Southern California -- to now has been bumpy and uncertain. Football at least distracts from the other stuff and begins the process of figuring out how far the Vols have to go. This is not the year to have Oregon, LSU and Alabama on the schedule to go along with SEC East powers Florida and Georgia. Tennessee's current state supports a largely unwritten story in the SEC this season: After Alabama and Florida, it is a precipitous drop down to the rest of the league. Take away the Tide and Gators, then, and the mighty SEC is down. Tennessee certainly has done its part.
Depth has been affected in some unique ways. Dooley kicked one player off the team and suspended two others (since reinstated) after that July bar brawl in Knoxville. Three prominent players have left since the end of spring practice. Nick Stephens, the only quarterback on the roster with experience, transferred to Division II Tarleton State. Right tackle Aaron Douglas, Tennessee's best offensive lineman, left for Arizona Western Community College in the spring. Douglas reportedly contacted USC about joining the program in January.
The Bryce Brown situation still hangs in the air. Dooley won't release the nation's former No. 1 prep tailback from his scholarship. Brown's father says medical issues have caused Bryce -- and his brother Arthur, a former Miami player -- to return home to Wichita, Kan. At best, Brown will receive his release in the next two weeks and be on scholarship when he sits out at Kansas State this academic year. At worst, Dooley looks vindictive and this becomes an ugly national story. Brown has appealed to the university for his release.
"I can't answer what's going through Coach Dooley's mind," said Arthur Brown Sr.
The pressure is on AD Mike Hamilton as much as it is Dooley in this reclamation project. Dooley has been a lawyer and an AD, but he doesn't have a winning record -- 17-20 at Louisiana Tech. Maybe Dooley's last name made that easier to overlook. Or maybe Hamilton botched the hire. At one time or another, the names of Jon Gruden, Gary Patterson, Kyle Whittingham, Troy Calhoun and David Cutcliffe were attached to the opening. Cutcliffe, a beloved assistant from the Vols' 1998 championship team, eventually chose his current employer (Duke) over his former one.
|Dooley's Career Record|
Don't blame Dooley for saying yes. He wasn't going to say no after finishing fourth, second and fifth in the WAC. Aside from the Brown situation, Dooley has said and done most everything right. He acted decisively after the bar brawl. The program lost a net 37 years when it replaced 70-year-old defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin with 33-year-old Justin Wilcox from Boise State. Wilcox, though, just happens to be one of the hottest young coaches in the country having brought a defensive attitude to the offense-first Broncos.
There will be challenges for Kiffin coaching holdovers such as Jim Chaney. Coming into fall camp, the offensive line had a total of three career starts. The quarterback position is basically down to two players. Matt Simms (10 passes at Louisville in 2008) had a good spring. Tennessee can only hope Matt has as much success as his brother Chris (Texas) and dad Phil (New York Giants). Six-foot-six Tyler Bray, a Kiffin commit, was playing in the spring game the same day of his high school prom as an early enrollee. Fellow freshman Da'Rick Rogers could help restore Tennessee's receiver tradition.
The cleanup begins now. The question is how long it's going to take.
"The national scene is really irrelevant," he said, "because when you dominate this league, you're going to be on the national scene. ... What we can't do is sit there and go, 'Florida and Alabama are winning right now. Oh my God, we got to do what they do.' We're not gonna do that. We feel like we have a formula."