As disappointing as last season was for Tennessee, particularly the way it ended with the loss to Kentucky, it wasn’t a total loss for Volunteers coach Derek Dooley.
He learned a lot about himself, learned some hard lessons along the way and also feels like he goes into the 2012 season with a much clearer picture of what has to happen if the Vols are going to make a move in the Eastern Division.
“The number one thing is that we have to do a much better job of coaching at all levels,” said Dooley, whose Vols have suffered through back-to-back losing seasons.
“I watch these cut-ups of what we’re doing. What we were doing schematically was good. How we were doing it was not good. Where I think I failed more than anything, and I told the team this, was making too many excuses for our players. It’s so important as coaches that you set a standard and demand it and hold everybody accountable to it. That’s what the players ultimately want.”
The Vols’ players will have a lot of new faces to learn from going into next season. Six of the nine assistant coaches are new, including defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri.
“We have to do a better job of teaching and holding our players accountable to what we’re teaching, and we have to improve our teaching,” Dooley said. “Look, I put it on us as coaches and me as the head coach. Sometimes, I used the youth and inexperience as too much of an excuse for allowing things to happen we shouldn’t have allowed to happen.”
Dooley thinks the Vols have the talent and the experience to compete now on a consistent basis in the SEC. He’s equally convinced that the staff dynamic is also in place now with the six new assistants and thinks the coaching turnover was actually an energizer for the program.
“I think it’s going to be very healthy,” Dooley said.
That said, he concedes there may be some early growing pains with the Vols moving to a base 3-4 defense under Sunseri.
“It will be an adjustment. It always is,” Dooley said. “But at the end of last season, I felt we were going to need to do more of that anyway [the 3-4 defense] even if we didn’t have a change at coordinator.”
The reason being is that the Vols’ defensive tackles are more in the 275-pound range, and now those guys will become defensive ends in the 3-4 scheme.
“Our defensive ends were 245 pounds, and when you’re playing a 4-3, those are two undersized positions,” Dooley explained. “When you stand the defensive end up and he becomes an outside linebacker, he’s a perfect size, and you move that 3 technique out to a 5 technique, and he’s the perfect size.
“What’s the challenge? You’ve got to find a noseguard in the middle who has some mass, and your inside linebacker’s got to be a little more physical.”
The Vols hope they’ve found that mass in 6-foot-6, 380-pound junior college transfer Daniel McCullers. Maurice Couch is another bigger junior college product who played last season for the Vols and should be even better his second year in the program.
Former Alabama defensive end Darrington Sentimore is already on campus and will go through spring practice after spending last season in junior college. He’s played end in the 3-4 before when he was at Alabama, and Dooley thinks rising sophomore A.J. Johnson will be a perfect fit inside at linebacker and rising sophomore Curt Maggitt a perfect fit as a stand-up outside linebacker.
“I felt our personnel was more suited for the 3-4 on base downs, but we’re still going to run some four-man front stuff,” Dooley said.