After two mediocre seasons filled with underachievement and injury, Derek Dooley enters his third season as Tennessee’s football coach surprisingly optimistic. If he is on the hot seat, he’s not showing it.
“I feel better today about where we are as a program than at any point since I’ve been in Knoxville,” Dooley said on the last day of SEC Media Days on Thursday. “Probably the number one reason for that is for the first time we have a settled roster. Our roster’s in place.”
The Vols enter 2012 at the maximum limit of 85 on full scholarship and have 19 starters returning from a squad that went 5-7 and 1-7 in SEC play. On Thursday, the media tabbed five UT players to the preseason All-SEC team, with wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers as the lone first-team selection.
Reuniting with Rogers is junior Justin Hunter, a second-team selection who had 314 receiving yards and two touchdowns in three games before tearing his ACL last September. Quarterback Tyler Bray also missed five games with a broken thumb and the running game was nearly obsolete with a league-worst 90.1 rushing yards a game.
This made for a dormant offense at times. In five of seven losses, the Vols scored seven or fewer points.
“Everybody’s putting it on us as an offense,” offensive lineman JaWuan James said. “It’s the third year for a lot of guys on the offensive line, and collectively as a group, we like it to be on our shoulders instead of anything else. I feel like our offense can do anything. 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.”
The media picked the Vols to finish fifth in the SEC East — only ahead of Vanderbilt and Kentucky. But Tennessee did receive four first-place votes, a sign of optimism for the Vols, who open the season on Friday, Aug. 31, against North Carolina State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta.
“It’s been a tough four years in Tennessee,” Dooley said. “I know, of course, the SEC has enjoyed taking advantage of our tough times. But there's a nice mood on our team right now that you're not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore. I’m excited about the season and I feel like we got a team that can go toe-to-toe for four quarters with all the teams in our league.”