Almost exactly two years ago the Tennessee Volunteers hired Derek Dooley to clean up Lane Kiffin's mess as he headed west to Los Angeles. At the time I was too sure what to think of the Dooley hire. Dooley has a great coaching bloodline and spent time under Nick Saban but he also went only 17-20 at Louisiana Tech and was coming off of a 4-8 record when hired. Only time would tell if Dooley was the right hire for Tennessee for the long-term or the right hire at the right time considering the issues that the Vols were having with the NCAA.
Going into year three the year is still out for Dooley. Last year Tennessee went just 5-7 and only won one SEC game. The Vols were banged up on the offensive side of the football as WR Justin Hunter played just three games and QB Tyler Bray missed five games. Tennessee struggled on offense scoring just 20.3 points per game and were ninth in the SEC giving up 22.6 point per game. The pressure is building for Derek Dooley in Knoxville. He's in a win now situation as he enters his third season. We caught up with the guys at the Tennessee blog Checkerboard Chatter to get their take on the 2011 Volunteers and get a brief glimpse into 2012.
CFBZ: Let's get this one out of the way. How hot is Derek Dooley's seat and how much pressure is there for him to get the Vols turned around next season?
Derek: In my opinion, Derek Dooley's seat is very warm but the good news is his expectations should be completely clear. If Dooley can win 9 or more games in 2012 then I believe he is safe. If he wins 8 then it will depend on how the Vols compete in the losses. If he wins 7 or less I can't imagine that first year AD Dave Hart will give Derek Dooley a fourth year. While 8 or 9 wins seems like a lot for these Tennessee Vols in recent years, a quick look at their schedule shows us that it is very possible and I would even say probable.
Let's take a look and that will help assess just what Dooley faces in 2012.
9/1 NC State (in Atlanta) - Must Win
9/8 Georgia State - Must Win
9/15 Florida - Toss Up
9/22 Akron - Must Win
9/29 @Georgia - Toss Up
10/13 @Mississippi State - Must Win
10/20 Alabama - Won't Win
10/27 @South Carolina - Toss Up
11/3 Troy - Must Win
11/10 Missouri - Must Win
11/17 @Vanderbilt - Must Win
11/24 Kentucky - Must Win
If the Vols take care of business in the "Must Win" games then they have 8 wins right off the bat. If they can find a way to beat 1 of the 3 against Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina then they secure 9 wins and Derek Dooley lives to see 2013. I think it really is that simple for Dooley. Win 8 and it's a maybe. Win 9 and he's safe. Win less than 8 and Tennessee will be looking for it's 4th head coach in the last 6 years.
CFBZ: Sticking with Dooley, what advice would you give Derek as we head into the off-season?
Eric: You're absolutely right; things are sticky for Derek Dooley right now especially so with the perception of how he's leading the Volunteer football program. There are rumors of "star" players (How many star players can a 5-7 team have?) getting special treatment and murmurs about how Dooley hangs his players out to dry with the media. There are doubts about Dooley's game management skills, and the list goes on and on.
As far as giving Dooley advice, I tread lightly on that subject because he and his staff have probably forgotten more about football than I know, but I do know this. You can't win in the SEC without a power running game. You have to be able to line up on third and short with the ability to run the ball for a first down. The Vols have been running on empty for far too long. Prodigal son Jay Graham has come home as running backs coach, and I feel that was a great move for Coach Dooley. The Vols have to develop their run blocking to be able to churn out the tough yards, and Graham must develop his running backs (hopefully Marlin Lane) into an SEC worthy back. Otherwise, it's going to be another long year in 2012.
CFBZ: What is the lasting memory you will have of this season?
Eric: The slam dunk answer is the loss to Kentucky for my lasting memory, and there are many reasons why. The 26 game winning streak.... over. The loss sealed the Vols fate for having back-to-back non-winning seasons for the first time since the mid-70's. Kentucky slammed the door on a bowl game for Dooley and his team as well, and the Cats did it without a single QB on their roster that day. UK trotted out a wide receiver at quarterback yet still vanquished the Vols that fateful day in Lexington. Had the Vols won, Dooley would not be in such a "sticky" situation. Nevertheless, I feel Dooley deserves another year and probably two years to turn this thing around. .
CFBZ: Who are some under the radar players for the Vols that you think can step up and have an impact on the field next season?
Drew: While Big Orange coaches and fans alike have high expectations for young players such as AJ Johnson, Curt Maggit, Marlin Lane, Maurice Couch and others next year, it will be interesting to see which “under the radar” players step up for the Vols. There are a few guys to watch, the first of which being Jordan Williams. He is a 6’5’’ 240 lb. DE, who saw limited time as a freshman. On his first collegiate snap he recorded a sack, and in the wake of Jacques Smith’s disappointing sophomore season, has shown flashes of being the consistent pass rusher off the edge that Tennessee has been missing. There is absolutely no reason to believe Williams won’t see substantial playing time next season, so expect big things from him.
Another guy to watch in my opinion is RB, Tom Smith. It is no secret that the Vols are in dire need of something resembling a solid running game. While they are hoping to land an elite RB in this recruiting class, realistically, the load will more than likely be carried by someone already on the team. I fully expect Marlin Lane to be the premiere back next season, but don’t be surprised to see Smith make big strides as well. He has good size at 5’11’’ 205 lb., and he will only get stronger in a collegiate S&C program. I fully believe the addition of RB Coach, Jay Graham, one of the best “North-and-South” backs in Tennessee history, will go a long way in the developing the raw talent in the backfield that hasn’t been cultivated in the past.
Another player to expect great things from is DB, Byron Moore Jr. Moore came from the JUCO ranks and was expected to not only make a big impact, but to be an immediate starter. However, Moore’s camp and start to the season were underwhelming to say the least. Though he initially struggled with the SEC transition and grasping Wilcox’s scheme, he began to play really well through the last few games. Expect to see Moore playing the role in 2012 that we all hoped he would play this year.
The next “under the radar” guy to watch for 2012 is LB, Christian Harris. While it must be frustrating to be in the shadows of fellow freshman LBs Johnson and Maggitt, this kid will be a solid LB for Tennessee. He is 6’2’’ 235lb. and has the body frame to really get big. I really like Harris’ attitude and work ethic, and while the LB group is all but set for next season, don’t be surprised to see this kid competing for some serious PT. Several of the other LBs are more athletic than him, but he is such a hard worker. Sooner or later you will hear his name being called out frequently in Neyland, and I like to think it will be sooner.
The final “under the radar” player to watch next year is TE, Cameron Clear. Dooley raved at the end of last year about the progress that Clear had made, and with his massive size of 6’6’’ 265 lbs., his upside is tremendous. With Chaney’s love for 2-TE sets, and this guy’s progression, don’t be shocked to see a breakout season from Clear in 2012.
CFBZ: Which players are you most looking forward to watching next year?
Drew: There are several players that I am excited about watching next season. I cannot wait to see the return of Justin Hunter, where he’s at mentally, and if that knee is where we all hope it is. I also can’t wait to see if Bray is going to grow up and grow into the QB he has shown he has the talent to be. We all see the potential, but it’s obvious Bray’s only obstacle is himself.
Ok, so now that some of the more obvious guys are out of the way, let’s look at some other guys I’m excited to watch in 2012. One kid I cannot wait to see on campus is actually not even enrolled at Tennessee yet. That guy is DL, Darrington Sentimore, who just signed his LOI this past Wednesday. With the departure of Malik Jackson, one of the Vols’ vocal leaders and best DL, there will be a gaping hole needing to be filled on the line – literally. I am so excited to see if Sentimore can come in and be that guy. As a freshman in 2010, he played in 10 games under Nick Saban at Alabama. We all know how deep Alabama has been over the past few years, so if Saban plays you as a freshman, you’re pretty darn good. I expect Sentimore to come in and make a major impact up front from the get-go.
This leads me to the guy I’m most excited about seeing in 2012 – Maurice Couch. Much like Moore, Couch came in and left the fans and coaches a bit disappointed about what we all expected to see. However, midway through the season he began to really come on strong and by season’s end he was playing well every game. I am so pumped to see his growth and transformation into the dominant SEC DT that we all know he can be.
Another guy that doesn’t fall far behind Couch in regards to my excitement is RB, Marlin Lane. I really feel like Lane had an excellent freshman campaign. Back in the day, RBs had to wait 2-3 years to see the field at Tennessee. I feel like he took a lot of criticism this year from the fans, but we have to realize this kid is only 18. He is going to only get stronger, faster and more knowledgeable in the game. Not to mention the strides he will make with Coach Graham as his mentor. I cannot wait to see the difference a year will make with this young man, and I truly think it will be special.
The next thing I cannot wait to watch really revolves more around a position than a certain player, and that’s the DE position. With the lackluster play of J. Smith this season, I think the position is wide open and I cannot wait to see the battle between Smith, Williams, Corey Miller, Willie Bohannon, and even some guys that aren’t officially Vols such as commits LaTroy Lewis and Trent Taylor.
Finally, the last guy that I am excited about watching is another commit, WR, Alton “Pig” Howard. Upon stepping on the field, this kid will immediately become the best play-maker in space on the Vols roster. Note: I did not say he would be the best receiver or even close to it, but he is a terror in the open field. While Arnett has experience and incredible hands, Howard has the speed and elusiveness that has been missing for a while in Knoxville. There are several other guys worthy of honorable mention such as incoming ILB, Dalton Santos, Izauea Lanier, Devrin Young, and incoming K, George Bullock.
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