After the UT football program had back-to-back losing seasons the past two years, the handwriting was on the wall, so to speak, and Head Coach Derek Dooley saw it vividly.
The program needed an extreme makeover. Sometimes you just do what you have to do, whatever it takes, to make it happen. Former head coach Phillip Fulmer left UT in 2008 after 17 years and one national championship in 1998 under his belt. Former UT athletic director Mike Hamilton hired Lane Kiffen to take over as the new head coach at UT. That lasted one year and much to the cheers of UT fans, Kiffen had an offer he couldn’t refuse from University of Southern California. Alas, Mike Hamilton hired Derek Dooley from Louisiana Tech. Dooley had coached there from 2007 to 2009 and posted a 17-20 record.
The decision to hire Dooley didn’t exactly please all Volunteer fans. Three different head coaches in three years did not exactly help UT’s recruiting of four and five-star high school football players. So Dooley, now in his third year at UT, started his makeover of the program by making changes in the coaching staff. Most players who were freshman when Dooley arrived, have stayed with the program and are now seasoned veterans.
UT has 49 Lettermen returning,and some of those players have made several pre-season watch lists. The past two years, the football team has lacked a premier, power running back. Dooley hired former UT star running back Jay Graham to coach the running backs to help with that issue, and former Alabama line-backer coach and NFL defensive line coach of the Carolina Panthers, Sal Sunseri, to stiffen the defense. This is a must, if you want to slow down high powered offenses commonly seen in the SEC.
Sal, even in interviews, comes across as a “no nonsense, full throttle” kind of guy.
Some of the players on the watch list are quarterback Tyler Bray; pass receivers Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, who is coming back after a major knee injury last year. If UT can get the running game in order, which has been a priority for Dooley, and the kicking game is where it needs to be, and the defense hardens, UT will have a good season this season. Prior to the first game Da’Rick Rogers could have ruined his future with a suspension about which the details were not explained early enough for most fans.
Coach Dooley has already commented during the SEC media days in Birmingham, Ala. in July, the Big Orange will not be kicked around this year.
True, UT isn’t expected to break into the Top-25 this year according to most of the preseason polls. However, Tennessee wasn’t expected to win the national championship in 1998 either. Sometimes, it’s just the way the pigskin pounces. The Vols went 13-0 in 1998, and no one expected that. Tennessee has the greatest opportunity to really shine this year as a football team. Some polls only expect UT to finish fifth in their own division.
The hype is very high with those who bleed orange. If there has ever been a year where all things should come together, this most certainly should be it. Barring any devastating injuries to our key players, UT should have a successful football season this year.