Though Derek Dooley is beginning his second spring as Tennessee’s head football coach, he doesn’t see it that way.
Because he was hired late last year — in January — he had less than two months to prepare for his first set of spring practices at Tennessee. This year, though, with a full fall season under his belt, Dooley feels as if he is starting with a clean slate.
“I feel like this is Year 1 and last year was Year Zero,” Dooley said. “It was such a unique situation we walked into last season, it didn't feel like your first year. I feel that right now, this is Year 1. We obviously need improvement everywhere. I think every spring you come in and you want to improve fundamentally at every position. You want to improve in the schematic knowledge the players have. You want to improve on the intangible values we build our program on, and you certainly want to start building a team dynamic, which this year will be very different from last year.”
Tennessee opened up practices on Tuesday afternoon. The Volunteers will wrap up the spring with their Orange and White Game at Neyland Stadium on April 16.
Tennessee returns 13 starters from a 2010 team that went 6-7, won its last four regular-season games to become bowl-eligible and lost a double-overtime heartbreaker to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl.
It wasn’t a bad first season for Dooley considering he played 16 true freshmen — the third-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Volunteers will be young again this fall. Six of their returning starters will be sophomores. Another six are incoming freshmen who came in mid-year. They are just a fraction of 26 incoming freshmen.
“It is all how you look at it,” Dooley said of his influx of youth. “If you have a negative attitude, it is really frustrating. I look at it as we have a lot of young talent so they’re going to be fun guys to coach, develop and watch.”
Tyler Bray will be back at quarterback after coming on strong last fall as a freshman and taking the job away from Matt Simms. Soon-to-be senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson leads the defense.
But the Vols will be missing numerous players this spring for numerous reasons. Linebacker Herman Lathers (shoulder), offensive line Marques Pair (knee) and quarterback Nash Nance (foot) will miss part or all of spring practices due to injury.
Murfreesboro native and defensive tackle Montori Hughes will miss two practices due to a violation of team rules. Safety Brent Brewer, who was as arrested last month on domestic assault charges, was just reinstated after a five-week suspension but will miss a session of summer school, Dooley said.
The biggest loss for the Vols could be safety Janzen Jackson, who withdrew from the school in February due to personal reasons. Dooley said he is on pace to come back for the fall but called the situation “day-to-day, month-to-month.”
With all the unknowns and youth, Dooley isn’t naïve when talking about the expectations of his second spring.
“To think we’re going to sit there and amp it up on cruise control, we’re fooling ourselves,” he said. “We’re going to have the youngest team probably in America next year. We need to start right now in making sure our sophomores of next year don’t play like sophomores. We need them to play like juniors and seniors.”