KNOXVILLE — From an exuberant celebration to dejection and talk of a division, the Tennessee football team’s locker room showed two extremes in a span of seven days.
The reality was probably somewhere in between the unauthorized video after the Volunteers’ overtime win against Vanderbilt and the comments insinuating some players were selfish following the season-ending loss at Kentucky a week later.
Coach Derek Dooley, however, did acknowledge earlier this week that his second Vols team had some chemistry problems.
“I think that’s a fair thing to say,” Dooley said Tuesday in his first appearance since that loss to the Wildcats in November. “I thought probably the biggest challenge I had all season — and we had, I shouldn’t say I — was team building. That’s the biggest challenge every year, but the fact of the matter was we had a very small group of upperclassmen and many of them didn’t play.
“We had a sophomore class who played a lot [as freshmen], and whether or not they were ready to take ownership of the team and the chemistry, probably they weren’t ready for it. Then we had a freshman class who was extremely talented with some great players who’s never been in an offseason to merge with the sophomores or the upperclassmen.
“It was a challenging team dynamic from the beginning, and I knew that going into the year. I think that’s as important a thing we can do as an offseason, and I don’t think we’re going to have any issues next year.”
The comments right after UT’s first loss to Kentucky in 27 years were revealing.
“No one wanted to be out there,” said senior tailback Tauren Poole.
“This team is young,” added senior linebacker Austin Johnson. “There are too many guys that it’s all about them, their stats and stuff. We just didn’t have a good week of practice, and I could see it in the guys. They were saying, ‘We might not go to a good bowl game’ and stuff like that.”
Malik Jackson declined to confirm any stats-first teammates, but the senior defensive lineman said the Vols must grow up moving forward.
Dooley noted the emotional nature of the postgame comments and stressed the importance of not overvaluing what’s said in the heat of a difficult moment.
“I think when you have time to reflect and look back, you think about all the positive things that were going on, and there were a lot,” he said. “Team chemistry is, first of all, them learning to play for each other, learning to play for Tennessee and learning to have a great trust with each other and with the coaching staff and with everybody in the organization. That takes work.”
The coaching staff has “tinkered” with some things in the upcoming offseason to help, Dooley said. The most important ingredient in the coach’s view, however, is time.
“The more you invest in something, the more important it is to you,” Dooley said. “That’s why seniors are so much more passionate about the success of a team than freshmen. It’s human nature. I think time’s going to fix that more than anything.”
The Vols’ 14-member senior class next season won’t be much larger than the 2011 group. Eight juniors started games for UT this past season, but those didn’t include linebacker Herman Lathers, who missed the entire season after fracturing his ankle in June. Even with another small group of contributing seniors in his third season, Dooley said he’s “really not worried” about finding sources of leadership for next season.
“I think we have a ton of guys who have incredible leadership ability, and I think they are going to take ownership of that this year,” he said. “Part of becoming a good leader is the time you have invested. It’s your commitment level to the program, and it’s your willingness to take the role of saying, ‘By God, we are going to do this thing.’
“We’ve got a ton of guys — I’ve already had great conversations with them — that just can’t wait to turn the page and start over.”
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 ...