published Sunday, March 18th, 2012

Ex-Vols see positive signs

KNOXVILLE -- In a week's time, Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley will introduce spring practice with a Sunday afternoon news conference.

The following morning, the Volunteers will hit the field for the first time in 121 days. With the departure and arrivals of seven assistant coaches, it probably feels like 1,121 days.

Since UT's stunning loss at Kentucky last November capped a difficult 5-7 season, all the focus has been geared to Dooley's third season. Despite the turnover on the coaching staff, Ron McKeefery returned for his second season as UT's strength coach. That's significant for a program that's had five different strength coaches since 2008.

According to two former players who returned to Knoxville this past week and worked out with the team, the Vols have made strides in the offseason.

"I feel like these guys are a lot more serious," former defensive lineman Malik Jackson said after UT's pro day Friday afternoon. "The two years I was here they were just young and just learning the ropes and had a pretty big role. Now they're embracing their roles. I see guys stepping up and saying stuff that they wouldn't have said last year.

"Just sitting back and watching them, I'm seeing these guys grow really well. I couldn't be prouder."

Tauren Poole noted the Vols' unity -- something Dooley admitted was lacking last season. He added that rising junior Rajion Neal is back working at running back after playing receiver last season and the offense has been tweaked to a more "up-tempo" style.

"They look good," said UT's leading rusher the last two seasons, "definitely working hard and working together. A lot of guys are into it. They're buying into the system, the whole philosophy Coach Dooley and Coach Mac want in this program trying to build a foundation."

Creating a closer team was a goal Dooley specified in January before the start of the offseason program. The Vols divided into teams during morning workouts in fostering competition and camaraderie. Outside of the complex, the team held a Madden NFL video-game tournament and took an outing to go bowling.

The fruits of the chemistry-building efforts likely won't be seen until the 2012 season, when the Vols must win more games.

"I feel like the Kentucky game is still on their minds, and they've got something to prove," said Jackson, who after transferring from Southern Cal was one of the most publicly honest players on the team during his two-year career. "They're putting it toward hard work, and they're making it a positive and not a negative. They're out here just trying to get each other better."

In eight days, much of that responsibility will fall into the hands of a coaching staff with seven new faces. Much like the players, UT's new coaches have spent the offseason feeling each other out in preparations for a crucial spring. It helps, though, that most of the new coaches have familiarity with one another.

"What I always try to do is get everybody on grassroots level," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, one of the staff's two holdovers, said last month. "Let's go through our base offense. This is who we are. Now let's share some ideas; let's talk about what you did a little bit differently and see how they mix in to what we're going to do.

"Primarily, it's just getting to know one another, getting to know one another's personalities -- who's a little fiery, who isn't. We're getting to know that and going through all the plays and finding out structurally what we need to work on, the X's and O's."

Even with a new running backs coach and new offensive line coach, UT's offense will have to adapt much less than the defense this spring. With new coordinator Sal Sunseri and three other new coaches, how much of the new system UT can install in 14 practices will be one of the spring's key storylines.

"We meet a lot in the mornings to get everybody on the same page of what we're calling things -- what we're doing defensively, how we're adjusting -- and it's been great," cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley said last month. "All the coaches have input. It's not like there's one guy saying, 'This is how it's going to be.' Coach Sal does a good job getting feedback from the assistants.

"I think it creates a healthy environment when everybody has a say-so or an opinion on how we should do things. Ultimately it's up to Coach Sal, the defensive coordinator, to make the final stamp on it. But when everybody can voice their opinion in a room, I think that creates a healthy environment."

The hope is that it creates a unified coaching staff in a relatively short period of time.

"If you have good people, [it takes] not very long at all," said offensive line coach Sam Pittman. "This is not an ego deal. We're trying to all win for the University of Tennessee, and that's what our plans are."

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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