|Dooley was forced to turn to backup Matt Simms after losing Tyler Bray to injury. (US Presswire)|
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Every college football program, particularly those in the SEC, produces a fair share of drama. But for real drama it would be hard to beat the soap opera that was the University of Tennessee during the 2011 season:
• After going 6-7 in 2010, the Volunteers entered 2011 knowing they would be pretty good on offense as long as two players stayed healthy: Quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receiver Justin Hunter. Neither made it past the fifth game.
• On Sept. 17 against Florida, Hunter collapsed without being touched on the fourth play of the game. Torn ACL. Out for the season. Done. Tennessee lost 33-23 in Gainesville.
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"In all the years I've been coaching I have never seen the air go out of a team like it did that day," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said.
• After a non-conference game against Buffalo, Tennessee played these four teams on consecutive Saturdays: Georgia (10-4, SEC East champs), LSU (13-1, SEC champs), Alabama (12-1, national champs), South Carolina (11-2, won 11 games for the first time).
After a non-conference game with Middle Tennessee, Tennessee went to Arkansas (11-2 with losses to No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 LSU.)
"How about that for a gauntlet?" Coach Derek Dooley asked.
• In the first game of that gauntlet, Bray broke his right thumb after hitting the helmet of a Georgia player. He did not return until the 11th game against Vanderbilt. With its two best players gone, Tennessee lost those five gauntlet games by a total of 81 points.
• Tennessee lost the 12th game of the season against Kentucky, which snapped a 26-game losing streak to the Vols. Kentucky won the game 10-7 with a quarterback, senior Matt Roark, who had not played the position since high school. In short, Tennessee basically mailed it in.
"The embarrassment of how we competed didn't just resonate with the head coach," Dooley said. "It resonated throughout the whole organization."
• Tennessee posted its second straight losing season (5-7) after which seven assistant coaches left the program. The narrative was simple: The coaches who left knew Dooley would get a third season in Knoxville but didn't see a future beyond that.
"Yep, we had some drama around here. That's for sure," Dooley said. "But you know what? I feel better about where we are right now than any time since I've been here. For the first time we have a sense of stability in our program. It may not be felt externally, but it is really strong internally."
Of course it sounds like Coachspeak. But as he relaxed in his office a couple of days after the end of spring practice Dooley insisted that his football program is in much better shape now than it was a year ago. Is it ready to challenge for the SEC championship? Probably not. But is it headed in that direction? Dooley gives an emphatic yes.
"Here is the perfect example of what I'm talking about," said Dooley, who was the head coach and athletics director at Louisiana Tech before he came to Tennessee to replace Lane Kiffin in 2010. "When I got here we inherited an offensive line that had a combined three starts. This year our line will have a combined 99 starts. We have 24 players on our team who got over 300 snaps last season. It is just a stable roster situation that we've not had."
As far as the coaching changes go, Dooley is convinced that the turnover on the staff, while it was not a lot of fun going through it at the time, has been a net positive on the program. Did some of those coaches leave because they were concerned about job security? They sure did, said Dooley.
"You know what? For a few of them that's probably true. That's a fair assessment," Dooley said. "They all left for different reasons but the fact is the changes have been positive and healthy for our program. This was as seamless a transition as we could have gone through."
The departure of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to Washington, for example, allowed Dooley to hire an old friend, Sal Sunseri, away from Alabama as his defensive coordinator. Dooley and Sunseri served on Nick Saban's first staff at LSU in 2000.
"We speak the same language. We have the same philosophy. He believes in the system just like I do so we didn't have to have six months of figuring each other out," Dooley said. "We have a lot of coaches on this staff who have worked with each other in other places. That makes a difference."
Sunseri, who was Saban's assistant head coach and linebackers coach at Alabama, spent the spring installing the 3-4 defense. He also spent a lot of time getting in people's faces. When it comes to defense at Tennessee, there is a new sheriff in town.
"Our guys have a lot to learn but they've bought in," said Sunseri. "Things are going to be a lot different around here."
Offensively, Dooley and Chaney made some changes this spring after Tennessee finished 116th nationally (90.8 yards per game) in rushing.
"The fact is that we were a soft football team," Dooley said. "You can't come to any other conclusion when you are as bad at running the football program as we were. That has to change." Chaney said, "We spent a lot of time this spring teaching guys how to hit people in the mouth. But it's not enough just to hit people in the mouth. We want them to like it."
Dooley, the former attorney, views his football programs in two ways: Internally and externally. Externally, there is the noise on the outside that fills the talk shows, blogs and newspapers. And that noise says Dooley needs to do something significant in 2012 or his new athletics director, Dave Hart, will have to make a change. Tennessee has not posted three consecutive losing seasons since 1909-11.
"If you're going to coach in this league you have to understand that that kind of noise comes with the territory" Dooley said. "You can't have it both ways. You can't ask 100,000 people to show up on Saturday and think they are not going to get upset when you don't win. I get that."
But internally Dooley believes that all the signs point to a Tennessee program that is moving in the right direction. The schedule is certainly better in 2012 as LSU and Arkansas rotate off and Mississippi State and Missouri come on. This season Tennessee gets a week off after Georgia before playing three straight against Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina.
The Volunteers put together a top 20 recruiting class last February and now have something shiny and new to show recruits.
Later this year Tennessee football will move into a state of the art 145,000-square foot training center with a price tag in the neighborhood of $48 million. It is plush. It also will be the best facility of its kind in the SEC and probably the best in the nation -- at least until another school decides to break ground and spend the money to top it.
The only question is whether Derek Dooley is going to be still be sitting in that beautiful complex overlooking the Tennessee River after the 2012 season. Dooley says he is going to stay the course. He knows what works. His father, Hall of Fame coach Vince Dooley, won six SEC championships at Georgia. He played for one of the best high school coaches (Billy Henderson) in the history of the state of Georgia. He played for Virginia's George Welsh, a Hall of Famer, and worked for Nick Saban, a future Hall of Famer.
"We are doing what works," Dooley said. "It has worked in the past for me and it will work in the future. I am going to stay consistent with it. Are there some things we can do to be better? Absolutely and we're going to change those. We feel good about where we're headed."
Tennessee loses its two best players and endures a nightmare schedule in 2011 to finish 5-7. Derek Dooley admits the Vols were 'soft.' Tony Barnhart says the coach knows such results are unacceptable in Knoxville.