KNOXVILLE -- The roster and the depth chart say one thing. The coaching, expectations and attitude indicate something different.
The youthful inexperience on the University of Tennessee football team hasn't stopped second-year coach Derek Dooley and his staff from working with an elevated level of expectations, nor are the Volunteers themselves using it as an explanation for small mistakes or limits on big objectives.
"I said in the beginning and I told the players we're not going to let youth be an excuse to not perform and not know what to do and not know how to do it," Dooley said after practice Wednesday. "We've coached them like seniors, and at times they've responded like seniors and at times they've responded like freshmen and sophomores. The real key for us is their ability to play like juniors and seniors.
"It's not saying that, 'Well, he made that mistake because he's a freshman.' It's demanding quickly that you don't make that mistake. We don't have time for you to spend a couple of years figuring it out; you've got to figure it out now. It's pushing the envelope a little bit more on all the guys than you normally would."
The sophomore class particularly is learning to shed what Dooley calls "freshmen tendencies," according to defensive end Jacques Smith from Ooltewah, and become dependable every-down players. It's certainly a message the staff has relayed to the team.
"Coach always came out and said, 'You're not freshmen anymore. We're going to coach you like juniors and seniors; [that's] what we need to you play as,'" said receiver Da'Rick Rogers from Calhoun, Ga. "I want to say the coaching was a lot harder [last year]. It was just, 'This is how it is in the SEC, this is how we're going to be as coaches, and you're just going to have to get used to it.' This year I think they're a lot more confident in us as a team."
Dooley seemed to indicate, though, that the change in approach is less drastic than it sounds. On paper, the Vols look like a team that's at least a year away from seriously competing for a SEC championship, but they certainly are not thinking that way. Dooley said he had to focus the players on that goal during the offseason, and they have responded to the higher demands.
"They've been great," Dooley said. "It doesn't mean they're meeting those expectations, but there hadn't been any 'I can't's.' There's a continual 'We're working, we want you to keep pushing us, and we're going to keep getting better.' We're going to have high expectations on these guys in everything they do, and when they don't meet the expectation, we're going to confront and demand that they do it."
Different coaches have different styles, and some players respond better to the screaming and yelling of some coaches than others. Defensive line coach Lance Thompson, who was labeled a "mean" coach by senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson earlier this month, said he keeps his approach consistent.
"My philosophy is I'm going to communicate my expectations to them, and I tell them all the time I don't mind if they make a mistake or get beat physically," Thompson said. "If they make a mistake, I put that on me; we go back in the classroom and coach them up. Our expectation is in the effort and toughness, and the combination of that with execution, that's the key to winning football.
"Now you have to play it down in and down out. You've got to be consistent in your performance. You can't have one good play, one bad play -- that's not good for anybody. We're just trying to educate them on what good is, what the expectation is and then coaching them up on their mistakes. We have a lot of young guys; they're going to make mistakes and have some bad plays. It's not an emotional thing, not a crisis -- let's go back and play the next down."
Harry Hiestand, the Vols' stern offensive line coach, had one of the least experienced units in the country last year with a trio of true freshman starters. His rather simple expectation level has remained the same, but the difference this year is how the players respond to the demands.
"Everybody has a job to do, and if they're doing their job, then we're good," Hiestand said. "If they're not, we've got to get it right. I wouldn't say there's any difference. If you're going to be out on the game field, the expectation is that you're going to do your job.
"They understand more what we're asking them to do. They understand the concepts of the plays and the protections obviously better. Any of us, the more we do something, the better we get at it. We're able to maybe put a little more time into some fundamentals, and they've got a better feel for what we're doing."
Some players have echoed that greater emphasis on the little things. On the two-deep chart, the Vols have 18 freshmen and sophomores on offense and 15 on defense, but the attitude is that the youth won't be used as a cop-out.
"I see the depth chart; I don't see age," said Jackson, one of the 26 upperclassmen on the Vols' 79-man scholarship roster. "You see that if they're there, then that means they have to have a lot of talent, and you know they know they know what they're doing. I don't see Jacques as a sophomore; I just see him as the best guy at that position.
"We've just got to go out there and go play with them."
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 ...