KNOXVILLE — Few people would blame Derek Dooley for keeping a great deal of his attention aimed at the future.
And that’s the case.
But age discrimination isn’t part of his process.
Dooley’s Tennessee football team is off to the start most expected. At the midway point of the season, his Volunteers are 2-4, 0-3 in the Southeastern Conference.
But he won’t, in his words, “tank the season” and play underclassmen just because they’re underclassmen.
The Vols have played 15 true freshmen this season. That’s the third most in major college football. Redshirt freshmen have played a pivotal role, too. But that’s out of necessity, the coach insisted.
“Look, we’re going to go out and try to win the next game,” Dooley said. “I’m not into this big-picture thinking that everybody else is. So we’re not here to win the championship. We’re here to win the next game. We’re not here to lay the foundation. We’re here to try to win the next game.
“Now we’re laying a foundation by the values we’re instilling. That’s what we’re doing. But our objective is to try to win the next game, and that’s what we’re going to try to keep doing week to week.
“At the end of the year we look back and say, ‘How were we?’ That’s all we can do.”
Those words comforted many in UT’s smallish senior class.
If a freshman is the Vols’ best option, he will get most of the playing time at his particular position. But he won’t play simply because he’s a freshman, Dooley insists.
“He’s not one of those coaches where he comes in and he’s just worried about his young guys, his young players,” said senior fullback Kevin Cooper, a former Baylor School standout. “That’s happened before, I guess, but not now. Coach Dooley respects us seniors, and he’s willing to help us out as much as he’ll help his freshmen.
“That’s all you can ask for, is for somebody to be fair to you. And he’s been fair to us.”
Cooper and several other seniors haven’t had nearly the careers they hoped to enjoy at UT. They signed with the Vols in 2007 — or 2006, in some cases — to play for longtime coach Phillip Fulmer, never win fewer than nine games and always compete for championships.
But four (or five) years, three head coaches, handfuls of coordinators and position coaches later, here they stand.
“I would have never guessed anything like this would ever be possible,” senior wide receiver Gerald Jones said. “This is a tough business, and I feel sorry for anybody who doesn’t know that yet, but at the same time ... it’s been crazy.”
And it’s not finished.
Opportunities — big, big opportunities — still dot the path. The Vols host eighth-ranked and defending national champion Alabama this Saturday. Then they visit 10th-ranked South Carolina, which recently beat Alabama and cemented itself as the team to beat in the SEC Eastern Division.
Even if both those games end in defeat — something all reasonable people expect — the Vols still would have four winnable games in November to become bowl-eligible.
Dooley won’t speculate on how he’ll feel if UT loses a seventh game, but he doesn’t sound like a coach who would tank it at that point, either.
“When you start thinking that way, you quit competing in the game the right way. That’s what we did last week,” Dooley said. “Just go play. It’s not laying foundations [for a] freshman class. We’re playing. That’s our team.
“The freshmen are part of the team. So are the seniors.”
And those seniors are “critical,” the coach continued.
“I mean, we need the seniors,” he said. “We’ve got some good players in the senior class. Some of them are playing really well, and some of them need to play a little better. And they all worked hard this week.
“They were great in the open date. Their attitude was great. They were upbeat, and we needed them to be.”
Many seniors have said many times this season that they can accept helping UT lay a foundation for the future. But if they’re the team’s best option to win now, they want to set that example on Saturdays, too — not just in pregame preparation.
“As seniors, you hate to look forward, because we aren’t going to be here next year, but the positive is that we are setting a tone on how to practice and prepare,” Jones said. “We are preparing great. Honestly, we are preparing the best I have seen. We have had three great weeks of hard practicing. It’s the best I have seen. It’s just youth when you get out there.
“I think we are doing a good job of laying a foundation on how to practice and how to prepare to be great and prepare for Saturdays. I think in the long run, these guys will be good.”
Added senior defensive end Chris Walker: “I hope we [seniors] can look back in a years when we’re winning championships again and say we helped get it started by showing those guys how to handle yourself on and off the field.”
That’s not to suggest it’s been easy. Someone as extroverted as Jones has shown that several times. But Jones — whom teammates often call “old man” because he doesn’t have a Facebook or Twitter account — took to the Internet after UT’s 41-14 loss at Georgia last week and, for the first time, studied the team’s depth chart.
“I don’t like to make excuses, and I don’t make them for myself,” Jones said. “They got recruited to play Division I, just like Georgia’s players did. But experience really overpowers youth. And it’s showing. The best thing about it is that they are young and eventually they will be good — whether it’s the second to last game of this season or whether it’s next year.
“I will always be a Volunteer and root for them, and I’m going to try and get them to be the best they can this year.”
Coaches have come to appreciate this senior class.
“Those guys impress the heck out of me,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “To go through what they’ve gone through ... I’m definitely impressed with the way those guys have handled themselves. But when you meet them and see what kind of kids they are, it doesn’t surprise you. I have empathy but not sympathy for them, and I think that’s how we all treat them — it’s like, ‘Hey, I know it’s been tough, but here’s what you need to do to help us win, and here’s what you need to do to become a better player.’
“I think they appreciate that, as opposed to patting them on the back and saying, ‘Hey, I’m sorry for you.’”
When offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said he didn’t think most people “have any idea the pain some of these kids play with,” he didn’t just mean the physical toll.
“Oh, I think you respect them as a human being more than as a football coach,” Chaney said. “I respect the heck out of what kids do in college as football players. It’s a difficult task on a 22-year-old to try to get his degree and play college football in this conference, and to achieve some of the things that these kids have been able to achieve and weather the storms that a few of these kids have seen in their tenure here at Tennessee.
“I’m very respectful of what these kids have been able to do, and I’m proud of them.”
And for that reason, Chaney agreed with his boss’s bottom line.
“I think you treat everybody the same while they’re here,” Chaney said. “You never want to be unfair to a football player. They all come out here, and I don’t see freshmen, sophomore, juniors or seniors. I see football players. And you have to be honest to them and treat them fairly. If they’re a senior and they’re playing poorly, you address it. If they’re a senior and they’re playing great, you reward them. I don’t see this situation any differently.
“Those kids have earned the right to be on the field, and that’s why they’re out there.”