KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Derek Dooley finally feels like a football coach again.
Not that the hard part is necessarily behind him as he enters his second season at Tennessee, but the tedious and often times frustrating task of establishing the kind of infrastructure he wants within his program is all but complete.
Now, it gets down to football, and more specifically, winning a few more football games.
“We were able in this preseason camp to do what we were hired to do, and that’s to go coach and motivate and teach our team instead of dealing with a lot of drama and explaining to everybody that that’s not how we’re going to do it here and that we’re going to do it a certain way here,” Dooley said. “There’s a lot less emotion and drama with this year’s team, and that’s good.”
It’s also a more talented team thanks to back-to-back top-15 recruiting classes nationally.
Dooley is convinced the Vols have upgraded height, weight, speed and athleticism at every position.
But they had to. Only four seniors are slated to start this season, and as many as 14 of the 22 position starters are projected to be freshmen or sophomores. That goes for both of the kicking specialists, too.
Two of the three starting linebackers will be true freshmen -- Curt Maggitt on the weak side and A.J. Johnson on the strong side.
“We feel like we’re better. We feel like we’re a lot better,” Dooley said. “But I don’t know if we’re any good … if that makes sense.”
For one thing, Dooley knows what he’s up against in taking such a young team into the teeth of the SEC gauntlet.
The Vols are the only Eastern Division team this season that has to face all three of the highest-ranked Western Division foes: No. 2 Alabama, No. 4 LSU and No. 14 Arkansas.
They do trade Oregon for Cincinnati in the nonconference schedule, but as Dooley is quick to point out, they trade a home game against Ole Miss for a road date at Arkansas in league play.
After going 6-7, including a controversial loss to North Carolina in the bowl game, in what Dooley calls “Year Zero” last season, what are realistic expectations for the Vols this season?
Dooley, a former lawyer, is too slick to be pinned down on that one.
He doesn’t dare toss out a number. Instead, he points to a sign hanging up in the Vols’ Neyland-Thompson Sports Center.
“It goes back to what our whole core value is: 'Relentless pursuit of continued improvement,'” Dooley said.
The translation: The Vols sure can’t take a step backward this season, and just about anybody in orange would tell you that another 6-6 finish in the regular season would be a step backward.
At Tennessee, you’re always going to be measured by how well you do against Alabama, Florida and Georgia. And here lately, you could probably throw South Carolina into that mix.
Beating one or two of those teams and finishing above. 500 in the regular season would go a long way toward living up to that standard of relentless pursuit of continued improvement.
It would also be a nice segue to a 2012 season in which the Vols will be expected to compete for the SEC title.
The Tennessee players are clearly motivated by so little being expected of them this season. They’re also tired of hearing their youth being used as an excuse as to why they won’t be a factor in the Eastern Division race.
“We’re going to shock a lot of people this year, so just be on the lookout for Tennessee. Old Rocky Top is coming back,” said sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith, who has a chance to be one of the real breakout players in the league this season.
The Vols have several of those players, especially on offense. Six of their projected starters on that side of the ball either started or played extensively a year ago as true freshmen, including quarterback Tyler Bray.
Dooley said it will be a completely different ballgame for those guys this season.
“We didn’t have any pressure last year [on offense],” Dooley said. “Our two receivers (Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers) had no pressure. They had two seniors ahead of them. They’d go into a game, and if they couldn’t make a big play, would get out. They didn’t have any pressure. The quarterback [Bray] came in and we were 2-6. If we lost a game, there was no pressure.
“Now, we start over. It’s their team. It’s a different story.”
Dooley said it’s imperative that the Vols run the ball more effectively this season, and he’s seen signs of being able to do that in the preseason. It’s helped having a deeper stable of running backs, and true freshman Marlin Lane has added the speed element to the equation.
Defensively, Dooley’s two biggest areas of concern remain the interior of the defensive line and cornerback.
The good news is that senior end Ben Martin has come back from a pair of Achilles tendon injuries, and Smith is a budding star at the other end.
“It’s nice to have Ben Martin back,” Dooley said. “He’s got some size and stature and provides leadership. That’s been a little bit of gravy that we weren’t counting on.
“What we’re seeing is that we’re not where we need to be at certain positions. Our concerns are at defensive tackle and cornerback. Austin Johnson is the new mike (middle) linebacker, but we’re showing signs that we’re going to get a lot better pressure with four guys, which we didn’t last year. And we’re showing signs that we’re matching patterns and covering better.
“So we’re showing signs that we’re going to make offenses work a little bit more to score points, and that’s encouraging.”