All eyes are keenly focused on Coach Derek Dooley as he begins his third season as head coach of the University of Tennessee Volunteers after a lackluster 2011 season. The Vols finished 2011 with a disappointing 5-7 record after dropping the last game of the season to Kentucky, which ended a 26 game winning streak against the Wildcats.
Combined with the 6-7 record of 2010, it was the first time in 100 years, since 1910-1911, that the Vols had finished with losing records in back-to-back seasons.
Tennessee ranked 116th in rushing last season and 104th out of 120 schools in net punting. The Vols also finished last in the SEC, almost 7 yards per punt short of conference leader LSU.
In an effort to shore up the team’s weaknesses Dooley is actively seeking new recruits to revitalize his team. Dooley has contacted several players from the beleaguered Penn State whose football program is facing unprecedented sanctions following the child molestation scandal that shocked the nation and sent former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky to prison. Penn State players can transfer to any school in the country and be eligible immediately.
“We’ve analyzed (Penn State’s) roster,” said Dooley, who was the featured speaker at the Downtown Rotary Club. “We’ve had some communication with some of the players.”
He wouldn’t specify what players UT had contacted.
UT benefited from a similar situation two years ago when Southern California was placed on NCAA probation. The Vols signed defensive lineman Malik Jackson, who became an All-SEC player and was drafted by the Denver Broncos this spring.
The most sought-after Penn State player is likely to be running back Silas Redd who rushed for 1,241 yards last season as a sophomore and would have two years of eligibility remaining.
According to published reports, Redd’s father has stated that his son has not made a decision as to where he will play this fall.
UT has retained 19 starters from last season but the team lost its star running back, Tauren Poole, who has graduated.
The Vols’ leading returning rushers are Marlin Lane, who rushed for 280 yards last season as a freshman, and Rajion Neal, who rushed for 134 yards and also caught 13 passes for 269 yards last season.
After two losing seasons many have begun to speculate if Dooley will have a fourth season with the Vols if he is unsuccessful this year. The turbulence experienced in the football program over the past five years has been demoralizing to its members and fans alike. The dismissal of Coach Phil Fulmer and the unexpected departure of Lane Kiffin left the team is disarray with little attention given to recruiting and developing the skills of the team.
With the team in a state of rebuilding, Dooley has been extended a great deal of patience from boosters, the athletic director, school officials and fans. Many are beginning to question how long that patience will persevere. For Dooley to be brought back in 2013, he will need to produce results and a winning season. No longer is a 5-7 season the bare minimum for retention.
In Dooley’s favor is veteran quarterback Tyler Bray’s, who is already on the radar of NFL scouts who have watched Bray throw a football well enough to earn a living at it. Bray’s talent combined with the skills of new recruits could be the determining factor in the final outcome of the season.
Dooley has stated he is optimistic about the progress of the team. But his optimism is cautious at best. While Dooley implies the Vols are no longer overmatched in talent and depth, he is less certain how they will handle a fourth quarter that matters. Dooley refers to a team’s grit, stamina and perseverance as a fourth-quarter determinant. In the last two season the Vols have proven to be a strong starter that plays a great first half that powers across the field like a locomotive. But in the second half it always appears as if the locomotive has ran out of steam. Does the team have the grit to persevere through the fourth quarter? Time will tell.
By Michael Williams