Two-a-Days rolls on with our 11th installment, in which we take a closer look at the Tennessee Volunteers.
To read previous entries, click HERE.
Tennessee in a flash:
Head Coach: Derek Dooley, first year
2009 Record: 7-6 (4-4 SEC), lost to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl
2009 Stats: Total offense, 383.46 ypg (6th SEC, 60th nationally); Total defense, 318.77 ypg (5th SEC, 22nd nationally)
Coaching Changes: Craziness in Knoxville during the offseason. Lane Kiffin bolted town amid a sea of angry fans after just one year. He took much of his staff with him, including DC Monte Kiffin, D line coach Ed Orgeron, QB coach David Reaves, receivers coach Frank Wilson, OL coach James Clegg, RB coach Eddie Gran and DBs coach Willie Mack Garza. Derek Dooley, the former La Tech coach and son of longtime Georgia coach Vince Dooley, takes over the program. He fillled out his staff with Justin Wilcox as DC (formerly the Boise State DC), Charlie Baggett as WR coach, Chuck Smith as D line coach, Eric Russell coaching tight ends and special teams, Terry Joseph as DBs coach, Darin Hinshaw, formerly a receivers coach at Memphis, as the QBs coach, and Harry Hiestand, a longtime NFL assistant with the Bears, to coach the O line.
Starters Returning: Offense (4), Defense (7), Special Teams (2)
Key Player Losses: QB Jonathan Crompton, RB Montario Hardesty, DT Dan Williams, S Eric Berry
Big Games: Oregon (9/11), Florida (9/18), @ LSU (10/2), Alabama (10/23)
Non-Conference Slate: Tennessee-Martin (9/4), Oregon (9/11), UAB (9/25), @ Memphis (11/6)
Tennessee was the talk of the SEC last season -- although usually because of head coach Lane Kiffin's antics, but also after a mild resurgence in the standings. But as quickly as Kiffin took the conference by storm, he bolted, and things could get pretty ugly in Knoxville in Derek Dooley's first year at the helm.
A tough schedule and massive player departures have the Vols facing an uphill climb. To find out how far they may have come during spring practice, I turned to Wes Rucker, who covers Tennessee for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Here's what he had to say...
David Hale: Obviously Lane Kiffin caused quite a stir last spring. How was this year’s spring practice — and the overall mood in Knoxville — different under Derek Dooley?
Wes Rucker: It depends on whose mood you’re gauging. From a media perspective, we didn’t see as much this spring. Kiffin, for all his faults, let us watch anything we wanted last spring. Dooley only allowed us in for individual practice periods, and we didn’t see scrimmages. As a result, many of my readers were disappointed with the lower amount of insight I was able to provide. We’ll figure this out, though. We better, anyway, because I don’t see a lot of wiggle room with this regime. Dooley and Co. even stopped the Kiffin-era blasting of Lil’ Wayne during practice, which disappointed several players and at least one beat writer.
As far as the mood around town, I’d say that’s nervy. The attrition from three head coaches in three years has really taken a toll on UT’s roster. The Vols will only enter preseason camp with barely more than 70 scholarship players, and that’s assuming no one else transfers, gets injured during summer conditioning or fails to qualify academically. I think most fans will rally somewhat before the season starts — even Kentucky and Vanderbilt fans usually do — but a slow start would squash those good feelings in a hurry.
And the Vols' second and third games are against Oregon and Florida. So, uh, yeah...
DH: Somewhat related question: Will the Times Free Press be reimbursing you for your entree fee to cover practice?
WR: I’m proud to state for the record that I didn’t pay UT one penny to attend its coaching clinic and watch the final, pre-spring-game scrimmage. I hope UT never puts us in that position again, but if it does, I hope no one attends the next one.
DH: While there were plenty of reasons for Tennessee’s rejuvenation last year, I thought the dramatic improvement of Jonathan Crompton probably topped the list. This year, however, UT is back to square one at QB, and with the transfer of Nick Stephens, there’s not much experience on the depth chart. How do you see the QB battle playing out, and how big of a concern is it right now?
WR: Coaches and players, nearly to a man, thought junior college transfer Matt Simms — Phil’s son and Chris’s brother — was UT’s best quarterback for a majority of spring practice. But Tyler Bray, a lanky, 6-foot-6 January enrollee from California, had a much better performance in the Orange and White game. Simms wasn’t particularly spectacular in UT’s scrimmages, either, but Bray wasn’t much (if any) better.
The bottom line is precisely what you speculated. The Vols have returned to a familiar situation from the last few years — quarterback uncertainty. Dooley has said from the beginning that he wouldn’t rush a decision, and that he’d play both during the season until finding the right guy. He’d rather pick one in preseason camp and be done with it, but he’s not going to pick one just to avoid an in-season controversy.
Simms instantly became a popular figure in the locker room, and teammates love his presence in the huddle and savvy on the field. Bray is probably more talented and definitely has a stronger arm, but he should be getting ready for his high school prom right now. It’s definitely an interesting situation, especially following Stephens’ abrupt, unexpected departure.
DH: If Crompton was the spark for UT last year, surely the running game was the foundation. Now Montario Hardesty is playing in the NFL, Bryce Brown has left the team, and the offensive line has a ton of question marks after Aaron Douglas left the team and virtually all of last year’s starters gone. So, what did you see from the ground game during the spring, and does someone like Tauren Poole even stand a chance if the Vols can’t find some answers on the O line?
WR: I’ve said for three years that Poole was the real deal, and nothing I saw this spring disproved that. He’s a solid, all-around back who can generate yards by himself on the ground or in the passing game. He won’t lead the SEC in rushing or anything like that — there are some awfully dynamic runners in this league — and he’ll be running behind five new starters up front.
First-year offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, who came to UT after five seasons with the Chicago Bears, said he’s “never even heard of anything like” replacing an entire front five in one year. Poole had no problem gaining yards against the Vols’ first-team defense this spring, though, and I think he’ll do the same this season. UT has some talent up front, but it’s young talent, so I think the Vols will struggle mightily offensively early before improving in October and November.
DH: Dan Williams and Eric Berry both became first-round draft picks. Monte Kiffin, the architect of last year’s D is gone, too. So what has been the impact of new DC Justin Wilcox, and who has stepped up this spring that he thinks could help fill the major holes left by Berry and Williams?
WR: Wilcox is a bright young coaching mind who might not be in Knoxville for too long. Friends who write for ESPN.com and Sports Illustrated told me I’d be highly impressed with the former Boise State defensive coordinator, and they were right. His outside-the-box thinking arrived at the perfect time for a program that must do more with less in order to succeed this season. Wilcox was 49-4 with two undefeated seasons and two BCS wins in just four seasons as Boise’s defensive coordinator, and his units led the WAC and ranked among the nation’s leaders in several statistical categories throughout his tenure.
The Vols don’t have tremendous depth defensively aside from the defensive end and middle linebacker positions, but their top 11 will be OK. No one player is capable of replacing Berry and Williams, but sophomore safety Janzen Jackson and big sophomore defensive tackle Montori Hughes are good young players who are also on track to making serious NFL money in the near future.
UT’s defense will be OK regardless, but it could be really good if a third defensive tackle and second cornerback step up in preseason camp. Scoring enough points will be another matter, despite having several solid wideouts and potential star tight end Luke Stocker in the receiving rotation.
DH: Aside from Kiffin, the biggest story from Tennessee last season might have been the incident involving three players allegedly robbing a convenience store. Already this offseason, defensive back Darren Myles has found himself in trouble off the field. What’s the approach that Dooley has taken to discipline, and how big of a concern is off-field behavior at Tennessee at the moment?
WR: Even good guys like Mark Richt occasionally struggled to keep 100-plus male college students in line, so I don’t think anyone should worry unless several incidents pile up in a short amount of time. The Vols have only had one documented incident during the Dooley era, and it didn’t involve illegal drugs or guns — or the double whammy combination of both — so I honestly don’t see any red flags there just yet. My stance will change if more incidents follow, but Myles’ alleged decision to become intoxicated and temporarily turn himself into a human hood ornament outside a sushi bar isn’t the worst story I’ve heard. If that’s the worst incident UT (or any other SEC program) has to deal with in a calendar year, that’s far from a nightmare scenario.
The relative lack of off-field trouble in the Dooley era hasn’t provided the coach many opportunities to show his disciplinary side, but we’ll see how he reacts to the inevitable problems that typically arise. I will say that I’ve been very impressed with the off-field character meetings he has with each class every week. Those meetings are designed to give the players basic information on not only how to avoid trouble, but how to handle simple tasks like signing apartment leases, avoiding credit card debt and paying bills on time.
Big thanks to Wes for some great insight into all the changes going on in Knoxville. You can read Wes's UT coverage for the Times Free Press HERE, follow his coverage on Facebook HERE or follow him on Twitter HERE. You can also catch Wes as host of "Inside Tennessee" on ESPN Radio's Knoxville affiliate (and subpar softball team) every weekday from 10-11 a.m.
So, what do you see as a fair prediction for Tennessee's season? They had a new coach and plenty of questions last season and still gave Georgia its ugliest loss of the season -- any chance for a repeat performance?
And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at email@example.com.
NEXT UP: A look at Georgia's opening foe, Louisiana-Lafayette, this afternoon.