Tennessee’s new football coach might have spent the last three seasons at Louisiana Tech in the non-BCS Western Athletic Conference, but Derek Dooley understands how the Southeastern Conference works.
His father, Vince, coached at Georgia for 25 years, and the younger Dooley was an SEC assistant for six seasons — one at Georgia and five under Nick Saban at Louisiana State.
“I knew what the expectations were before I took this job. I grew up in this league,” Dooley, who was 17-20 during his stint at Louisiana Tech, said.
But as he enters his first season as a head coach in the SEC, the 42-year-old is locked in on one priority, aside from winning: changing the image of the Tennessee football program.
“I think the biggest thing is just having our team represent this institution with class at all times,” Dooley said recently during a trip to Nashville. “Knowing that there are going to be mistakes and there is always going to be things that young people do that don’t make you happy. But at the end of the day, what I want is our fan base to be walking around, proud to be Volunteers every day of the year.”
Dooley spent his first offseason with the Vols handling a spate of off-the-field problems.
First, he took over for Lane Kiffin, who bolted Tennessee for Southern California after one year with the Vols (a 7-6 campaign that ended with a loss to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl). During his first few months on the job, Dooley reached out to the Volunteer community and did his best to heal wounds left by Kiffin, who had a knack for speaking his mind. A former lawyer, Dooley used his Southern drawl to win over a vast amount of the Tennessee faithful.
Last month, Tennessee’s image took another hit. At least six football players were involved in a bar brawl in Knoxville, which resulted in the dismissal of starting strong safety Darren Myles Jr. Linebacker Greg King and defensive tackle Marlon Walls were also suspended but have since returned to the team for summer practices.
“We’ve embarrassed a bunch of people,” senior defensive end Chris Walker said. “If we win games people won’t talk about it as much, but we also have to do things off the field to show people we’re not these thugs that they see on TV.”
On the field
Tennessee begins its season on Sept. 4 at home against Tennessee-Martin, and it appears there will be some question marks on the defensive line.
Both Walls, at defensive tackle, and defensive end Ben Martin injured their Achilles tendons earlier this month during practice and are expected to miss considerable time. Walls played in seven games last year, but Martin could be the bigger loss. The senior had 38 tackles and 3.5 sacks last year.
It is expected that USC transfer Malik Jackson, who had 18 tackles and 3.5 sacks a year ago as a sophomore, will help fill the void left by Martin. Tennessee could have as many as eight underclassmen starting on defense this year.
Five seniors will lead the Vols’ offense, which averaged 29 points a game last year. Tennessee’s top three receivers in 2009 — wide receivers Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore and tight end Luke Stocker — return after totaling 16 touchdowns and more than 1,500 yards. Throwing to them will be junior quarterback Matt Simms, who is the son of former Super Bowl champ Phil Simms. Simms transferred from El Camino (Calif.) Community College, where he threw for more than 2,200 yards and 17 touchdowns last year. True freshman Tyler Bray could also see some playing time at quarterback.
After the season opener, Tennessee will be tested early with back-to-back home games against Oregon and Florida. Plus, the Vols’ first three games in October will be against LSU, Georgia and defending national champion Alabama.
“Every year when you analyze the schedule, it’s really hard to have an easy schedule in this league,” Dooley said. “There’s no way you can ever have it where it’s easy.”
The same goes for rebuilding the culture of a program.
Dooley knows it won’t be easy and understands it can’t be handled with a quick fix, but he said the culture could change if players’ attitudes and approaches change first.
“They have to be great over time. I told them that — you have to prove it over time,” Dooley said. “It is just like your character. Your character of the program is the same thing as your personal character. You can go 20 years of doing everything perfect. You make one mistake, you got to start over and build it. That is where we are now.”