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Thursday, July 21, 2011
Vols eye Eastern Division championship

By Chris Low

HOOVER, Ala. -- Derek Dooley doesn't mind saying it.

Somewhere along the way a year ago, his team lost sight of what the standard is at Tennessee.

"I thought it was very important that we turn the page after last season to redefine the standard of excellence that Tennessee has had for so long," said Dooley, whose Vols were 6-7 in his first season in Knoxville.

At the heart of that standard is winning an SEC championship, something Tennessee hasn't done in 13 years.

"The fans expect us to go out there and compete for the championship and get one of those banners, and we're going to work on that," Dooley said.

Notice, he didn't offer up a timetable.

Dooley said he got out of the prediction business a long time ago, but he does go into the 2011 season feeling like his Vols can contend for the Eastern Division championship.

Never mind that more than 70 percent of the roster will be comprised of freshmen and sophomores.

"We entered this spring saying we're not going to let our youth be an excuse for failure, and we're not," Dooley said. "So it's going to be everybody's responsibility not to act like freshmen and sophomores and not to play like them, and we'll see if they can do that."

Defensive tackle Malik Jackson is one of only 10 seniors on the team, and while he understands the Vols will be lacking in experience, he looks around at the rest of the East and says, "Why not us?"

And he means now as opposed to later.

"I know we have the talent, and we also have the leadership on this team," Jackson said. "The East is wide open this year. We just have to take care of everything right in front of us and not get caught up in what's on down the road."

Dooley has already made a pact with this team that he's not going to coach it like a young team.

It's something they all agreed on the very first meeting last spring.

"I told them we can do this one of two ways," Dooley recalled. "I said, 'I can coach you like a freshman and kind of coddle you along, and you're probably going to have to play and you'll go out and embarrass yourselves, but you might like me a little better.'"

Needless to say, his second option was a runaway winner -- coaching the team as though it's upperclassmen and holding some expectations that younger players often don't have.

"It's going to be hard on you," Dooley told his players. "But it might make you a little bit better and give you a better chance to succeed on the field."