Tennessee Vols face painful offseason

Tennessee Vols face painful offseason

December 5th, 2011 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

UT's head coach Derek Dooley takes the field before playing South Carolina at home Saturday evening in Knoxville.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- The destination was known.

There was no waiting for an opponent to be announced, no travel plans to make and no hopes for building momentum into the offseason.

Nine Southeastern Conference football teams learned their fates for bowl games Sunday, but Tennessee has known it won't be participating since the Nov. 26 loss at Kentucky. That defeat doomed the Volunteers to their first consecutive losing seasons in 100 years and cast them to the bottom of the SEC East Division standings.

The offseason is barely a week old, but it seems longer than that given the negative repercussions from the forgettable ending to a forgettable season.

"I really have a lot of confidence in where we're headed, but there's a heck of a lot of short-term pain that we have to endure right now," UT coach Derek Dooley said on his television coach's show last week. "That's part of the deal."

The deal was tough on the Vols this season. Talented safety Janzen Jackson was dismissed right before the season began, and the secondary struggled to adjust. Star receiver Justin Hunter got hurt in game three, lost for the season, and quarterback Tyler Bray missed five games, which hamstrung UT offensively.

The schedule did the Vols few favors as well. They caught Florida fully healthy and in a six-week stretch played five teams ranked in the top 14 of the final Associated Press poll. A week after responding in a must-win situation in an overtime game against Vanderbilt, the Vols came out flat in the season-ending loss in Lexington.

"I think there's a silver lining to everything," Dooley said. "Had we gone to a bowl, we all would have felt better in the short term. But in some ways, with the pain that we all feel [now], it can pay dividends for how we reshape this football team in the offseason and make a real statement about the commitment level that we all need to make as coaches, as players, to getting this thing right next year. That's what we're going to do."

At one point in September, the season's poor ending ended seemed unlikely. UT pounded Cincinnati in Knoxville, easily beating the co-Big East Conference champion, which didn't lose again for two months until quarterback Zach Collaros went down against West Virginia. UT's offense was healthy and clicking, the defense made timely stops against a potent offense and the Vols were effective on special teams.

The Vols lost Hunter at Florida the next week, and the season unraveled from there.

"I never thought the season would end like this, especially after all the hard work we put in," said senior defensive lineman Malik Jackson. "Things happened to us. Injuries killed us. Youth, with people playing that aren't ready to play, that kind of killed us.

"At the end of the day, it falls on us, it falls on everybody in this program. We just didn't do what we had to do."

The building toward next year -- or the "climb" from rock bottom, as Dooley put it -- begins in earnest with the offseason workout program that starts in January following final exams and Christmas break. Ron McKeefery, the program's fifth strength coach since the 2008 season began, is back for his second season.

The improvements the Vols must make, however, go beyond getting faster, bigger and stronger.

Following the loss to Kentucky, a number of players spoke of a locker room that wasn't completely unified. Senior linebacker Austin Johnson said some players were worrying more about their individual stats and not wanting to go to a lesser bowl. Senior tailback Tauren Poole said "no one wanted to be out there" and questioned the sense of urgency of some of the younger players.

While the Vols must get better physically, some leadership has to emerge.

"We're going to make a lot of changes," Dooley said. "As we always do every year, we're going to evaluate where we can do better as coaches, and we certainly have a lot we can do better as coaches. But more than anything, we have to start shaping our team to play as a team, and 70 percent of those guys that were out there were in their first or second year in the program. Those two classes have to come together and form a team.

"They've not had an offseason together, so in many ways, we weren't the kind of team we needed to be and it showed against Kentucky. When I say 'team,' I mean playing together for each other for a common purpose. We just haven't had that investment from those guys because they hadn't been in the program very long, and they certainly haven't been in it together."

The fallout from the season needed just five days to begin. Receivers coach Charlie Baggett elected to retire, opening up a spot on Dooley's staff. Star receiver Da'Rick Rogers appears to have started the offseason in Dooley's doghouse.

If there's some positives to take from the season, it's that the Vols got a handful of freshmen some key experience. UT has played 31 true freshmen the past two seasons. Five first-year defensive players and six sophomores and two freshmen on offense started the season finale.

"The future is bright, even though [the Kentucky loss] hurts," Dooley said. "It's going to hurt for seven months, but sometimes you need that pain to get it right."

In Dooley's third year, the Vols have no other option.

"I don't think Tennessee is going to have to go through the kind of stuff I had to go through when I was here," said Johnson, who stuck with the program through three coaches. "This program is on the rise, they've got some bright futures and this team is going to be extremely good next year. I wish them the best of luck.

"I would never change anything, and I would come back here in a heartbeat."