Tennessee head football coach Derek Dooley answers questions at a news conference on Monday, March 21, 2011, in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee began spring practice on March 22. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
KNOXVILLE — Derek Dooley is going to need more than flashes.
That’s what the Tennessee football coach got from his freshmen last season, when the Volunteers were battling through the youth and depth issues that come as a result of two coaching changes in successive years. But if UT is to make a leap in Dooley’s second year, it’s on the second-year Vols to make jumps of their own.
“I think they’ve made progress,” Dooley said of his rising sophomores after Saturday’s spring game, “but I don’t think they grasp it right now — what it means and the intensity level, the mental intensity and the work ethic. So we’re just going to keep working on that.
Hopefully over the next 8-14 weeks before we report [for camp in August], we make another jump in how we work and how we recover and our ability to sustain.”
Fifteen true freshmen and four redshirt freshmen were key contributors for the Vols last fall, and Dooley stressed before spring practice began the importance of those players developing into consistent, every-down players.
“That’s very common for young players. It’s very important we don’t get enamored with flashes,” he said. “Guy flashes a play and all of a sudden he’s a great player. There is a huge difference between a guy that makes a good play or has a good game versus a guy who does it week in and week out, day in and day out.
“We really don’t have one player on our team who’s shown he can do it day in and day out and week in and week out for a whole season, so that’s our challenge.”
As much as the Vols have to replace on defense, that challenge is especially steep offensively, where they will enter the summer with eight sophomores and another second-year player (tight end Mychal Rivera) No. 1 on the depth chart.
Quarterback Tyler Bray may be the most important player in that group, and he showed some progress and some flaws this spring. His 5-of-30 performance passing on Saturday aside, Bray struggled in the Vols’ first scrimmage but had a stronger performance in the second.
“Last year there were where times I tried to force the ball too much and rely on the guys to make a play, which they did,” Bray said Saturday. “[You’re] going from being a freshman to where you’re not expected to know everything, and if you mess up it’s OK. [Now] you’re a sophomore, you’re coming back, you mess up and it’s right on your butt because you should be a veteran and you should know everything by now. It’s difficult at times.”
Receivers Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers, who filled specialized roles within the offense last season, slid into spots this spring as the top two targets. Offensive linemen Ja’Wuan James, James Stone, Zach Fulton and JerQuari Schofield — who combined to start 31 games last season — also made some spring progress in their development process.
“They’re still freshmen. It’s only been three months since the season,” line coach Harry Hiestand said. “They feel more comfortable with our offense, and you can see a little progress in that because now they’re doing it for a second time. We’re not going to see the real rewards from all the work until we go through a full cycle because they really are still freshmen. It’s just that they played a lot last year. They’re still puppies.”
Just two rising sophomores [end Jacques Smith and safety Brent Brewer] were listed as starters on defense, where the competition for playing time will heat up with the summer arrival of up to 10 freshmen and three junior college players. Janzen Jackson, out of school this semester for personal reasons, also could return to a starting spot at free safety.
While the Vols will need a few newcomers to provide depth and fill contributing roles, the sophomores improving and avoiding a second-year slump will be a focus for the team.
“I mean, nobody’s played a good game for 12 games — nobody,” Dooley said. “You can’t play a great game for 12 games, but you don’t want to play a bad game. That’s the facts.”
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrownTFP.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...