KNOXVILLE -- Derek Dooley is back on the search for assistant to complete his coaching staff.
Tennessee's second-year football coach has another vacancy to fill after special teams coordinator/tight ends coach Eric Russell finalized his decision to join the staff at Washington State, a source inside the Volunteers' football program confirmed to the Times Free Press on Sunday afternoon.
Reports of Russell's move to reunite with former boss and new Cougars coach Mike Leach began surfacing last week, but a final decision for the Washington native who turns 44 in 18 days didn't come until the weekend. UT does not comment on assistant coaches leaving for other jobs, but Russell's hire could be announced today. Russell made $250,000 this season after receiver a $50,000 race from his first year.
Coaching at Texas Tech under Leach in 2009, Russell was nominated for the Frank Broyles Award, which is given annually to the nation's top assistant coach. Russell joined Leach with the Red Raiders after two seasons with Dooley at Louisiana Tech and rejoined him when he took the UT job in 2010.
Before attending the University of Idaho, Russell played quarterback at Spokane (Wash.) Falls Community College. He began his coaching career in 1991 as a graduate assistant at Idaho, which us less than 10 miles from Washington State's campus in Pullman. Dooley hired him at Louisiana Tech after Russell spent 13 seasons at North Texas.
It's the second staff change for Dooley this offseason. Last week, the coach hired former UT tailback Jay Graham to coach the Vols' running backs and replace receivers coach Charlie Baggett. The Times Free Press reported that Baggett chose to retire, but the school release that announced Graham's hire did not give a reason.
Darin Hinshaw is expected to move from quarterbacks to receivers, the position he coached for three years at Memphis before arriving at UT. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is expected to focus more on the quarterbacks. Neither of the moves nor any new titles have been officially announced by the school.
Under Russell, the Vols' punt and kickoff coverage units were better, though the late-season struggles of kicker Michael Palardy and punter Matt Darr overshadowed the improvement. UT was 11th nationally in kickoff return yardage defense, and the Vols went nine games before allowing a punt or kickoff return touchdown, the longest into a season since 2004, when they allowed none.
The Vols were just 102nd nationally in net punting, but they made a big jump in punt-return yardage, from 109th last season to 62nd this year. Freshman return specialist Devrin Young had a big role in that with an average of nearly 12 yards on eight returns, which included returns of 43 and 20 yards. Young also averaged nearly 24 yards on kickoff returns and had five of 30 yards or more.
Palardy made nine of his 14 field-goal attempts, but he struggled with low kicks against Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the season's final two games after kicking a career-long 52-yarder at Alabama. The sophomore split punting duties with Darr, the redshirt freshman. Collectively the duo averaged 38 yards per punt and struggled with consistency.
Tight end Mychal Rivera caught 29 passes for 344 yards on touchdowns this season, though the junior had five games where he caught one or zero passes. Freshmen Cameron Clear and Brendan Downs split backup duties, with Clear closing the year strong after Downs began the season as the No. 2. Rivera and eventual NFL draft pick Luke Stocker combined for 50 catches in 2010, and the Vols struggled to replicate that production from the tight-end spot this season.
Russell also held the responsibilities of recruiting the state of Texas, and he was the primary recruiter for commitment LaDarrell McNeil, a four-star safety prospect from Dallas. McNeil, who's yet to take his official visit to UT, took an official to Nebraska this weekend. Linebacker Dalton Santos is the Vols' other commitment from Texas.
It's unclear what direction Dooley will head with his hire. From his time at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins under current Alabama coach Nick Saban, Dooley has experience coaching tight ends and special teams, and Graham coached tight ends in addition to running backs at South Carolina. Whatever direction he decides, Dooley could move quickly, especially since he hired Graham less than a week after Baggett's decision to retire was reported.