Derek Dooley, Vols leaders duly optimistic (with video)

Derek Dooley, Vols leaders duly optimistic (with video)

July 20th, 2012 by Patrick Brown in Sports College08football

Tennessee Coach Derek Dooley speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days in Hoover, Ala. on Thursday.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

HOOVER, Ala. - The question prompted Derek Dooley to repeat it before giving an answer.

Surprisingly, though, there weren't many more like it for Tennessee's football coach.

Dooley enters his third season leading the Volunteers on the back of the program's first consecutive losing seasons in roughly a century, but his Thursday morning visit with print and Internet media at the Southeastern Conference media days in the large second-floor ballroom of the Wynfrey Hotel lasted just 14 minutes. The coach answered questions about UT's opener against North Carolina State, college football's new four-team playoff system and even freshman receiver Drae Bowles. But the topic of his job security made no appearance where it was most expected.

For a guy who was at or near the top of some national pundits' offseason lists of coaches on the cliched "hot seat," it was slightly unusual.

"What have I proven?" Dooley said to a group of local reporters before heading downstairs for a round of multiple interviews. "I don't think that's my place to say because all really we're judged on is what the record is, so until we change that, it's pointless for me to tell you all the things I feel like we've accomplished."

The Vols are 11-14 under Dooley with four SEC wins - against Vanderbilt (two), Kentucky and Ole Miss. That hasn't stopped him from reiterating his comfort and good feelings toward the progress the program has made. UT enters this season with higher hopes and what should certainly be Dooley's best team.

While he didn't face any questions containing the "hot seat" phrase, the Vols' - had to give their answers.

"I don't think he's on the hot seat," Bray said. "I think the team's on the hot seat. Us as players, we haven't gone out and executed the coaches' game plans like we should have, and that's why we've been losing."

The roster, to which Dooley has pointed as the source of his confidence, has been a reason for the disappointments. The schedule has been unforgiving. Bad luck hit last year with injuries to Bray, Lathers and star receiver Justin Hunter and the dismissal of safety Janzen Jackson.

Five UT players were on the media's 2012 preseason All-SEC team, up from three last year. The Vols' passing game oozes potential. A new defensive coordinator has brought new energy, new schemes and new aggressiveness to that side of the ball.

Yet the league media put UT behind Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Missouri on its East Division ballot.

"Absolutely we can," Dooley responded when asked if the Vols could compete within the division. "We have a better roster than we've had since I've been here. We're more experienced; we're deeper; we're more talented.

"We have a lot more experience; we have a lot more talent; we're deeper; and we're a lot more mature, emotionally. We're a lot more mature team, and now it's just a matter of going up there and notching up some wins."

Alabama coach Nick Saban, who Dooley assisted at LSU and with the NFL's Miami Dolphins, commended the job of his coaching pupil in getting UT to that point.

"I think Derek Dooley has done a really good job," Saban said. "I think he inherited a very difficult situation. A lack of continuity probably created a difficult situation in terms of quality of personnel depth.

"I think Derek has done a lot of things to create a lot of program stability there. I look for them to have a much better team this year. I think that Derek is going to be just fine and do a wonderful job in the future at Tennessee."

As Bray said, the immediate future is in the players' hands. Dooley called this offseason "very different" from his first two and said the players' commitment level has been much higher this summer.

"It's been significant," the coach said. "I think that's because of our experience. I think it's a good sign."

James, who's started every game of his two-year career at right tackle, has noticed a sort of evolution and growth with himself and his teammates.

"It's a great feeling just looking around and seeing the players we have, how they've matured, and I feel like we have a better team overall," he said. "You know them, you know what they're capable of and you just try to push them every day to get the best out of them. It's a good feeling that we know each other and we know what we need to succeed."

Questions, answers and random hot-seat lists aside, Dooley knows what he and his team must do this season.

"We've got to go out there and win," he said.