KNOXVILLE-The offseason workout program is drawing to a close, and the beginning of preseason practice is just around the corner.
The process of finding and developing leaders for Derek Dooley's young University of Tennessee football team has continued for more than seven months since the end of last season, and the concerns remain for the second-year coach of the Volunteers.
"You don't look at our roster and say, 'Well, there's our leaders,'" Dooley told a group of local media Thursday morning before making the rounds at Southeastern Conference media days. "It's put a lot of importance on the few seniors that we do have that play."
The Vols have just a dozen seniors on the roster, including long snapper Nick Guess and former walk-on linebackers Shane Reveiz and Jake Storey, who were awarded scholarships this summer. Two seniors - tailback Tauren Poole and defensive lineman Malik Jackson - accompanied Dooley and junior offensive tackle Dallas Thomas to Hoover, Ala., on Thursday. Also appearing on schedule posters, billboards in Knoxville and the front cover of UT's media guide, Jackson and Poole have become the Vols' most marketed players.
They also are two of UT's most productive players: Poole broke the 1,000-yard mark last season and Jackson earned preseason first-team All-SEC honors from the media and the coaches last week largely based on his late-season breakout in 2010.
Jackson has focused on filling a leadership role defensively for the Vols since before spring practice, but the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Southern Cal transfer admitted there have been some struggles.
"It's been kind of hard," he said. "I've been asking my coach a lot what I should do in certain situations. It's pretty tough. It's my first time, but just taking the experience that I learned from the guys at USC, I'm just trying to use it over here and it's working out pretty good."
Poole, the lone senior projected to start on UT's offense, spoke repeatedly of his quiet nature throughout last season, but as the eldest on an offense that could start at least seven sophomores, he's tried to change his style.
"I'm really not a nice guy on the field," the 5-10, 215-pound Poole said. "I've been a nice guy and it doesn't win you any games. You have to be strict on the young guys, and they have to see a winner's mentality. I'm ready to win. I'm fed up with losing. In workouts we call guys out. We see what you are doing and you have to do it right. We have to be better."
The Vols' youth - there are 57 freshmen and sophomores on the roster - might be their biggest obstacle to finding leadership. Poole, Jackson and projected junior starters Thomas and cornerback Marsalis Teague would all be in only their second seasons as starters.
"It's hard to be a leader because what you're talking about is their ability to affect others in a positive way," Dooley said, "and it's hard to go and start worrying about the other guy when you don't really have a comfort level with where you are as far as knowing what to do, the expectations and how to do it.
"Most freshmen come in, and sophomores even, where they're still really worried about taking care of themselves. Once you feel good about how you're progressing and your command of the offense [or] command of the defense and you start developing relationships with the other players - it's only then that you feel like that you are empowered to affect others in a positive way."
Last year the Vols had a handful of senior leaders, reliable and productive players who had battled through the turmoil of three coaching staffs. Those players' successors at least have some stability with a coaching staff that had minimal change from 2010.
"It's just knowing what's going to happen now," Thomas said. "We know what Coach Dooley wants, we know how he wants his program run, and he's looking at us to run the program the way he wants it be run. We're going to get the job done for him."
The returning Vols had a full winter workout program and a month of spring practice to improve themselves, and the two-month summer workout program let them demonstrate to a group of 21 newcomers how to work toward becoming better players on a daily basis.
Now the search for leaders is set to begin the next stage, when first-year strength coach Ron McKeefery turns the Vols over to Dooley and his staff.
"Everyone wants to win a championship, but not everyone wants to go through the pain and struggles in the offseason to win a championship," Poole said. "Talking about it won't get us anywhere. We have to have a work ethic to get it done. We have done that this offseason and have tried to show the freshmen what approach you have to have."