KNOXVILLE -- Ja'Wuan James needed to give it some thought.
After a couple moments' pause, Tennessee's sophomore right tackle shared what he thought was the identity of the Volunteers' football program.
"Right now, I feel like we're still trying to build it, still trying to build our brand, still trying to find it," he said "We hope to be one of the dominant teams in the SEC, especially up front on the O-line and D-line. That's where you're going to make your money in the SEC, winning games with the guys up front. Coach [Derek] Dooley has put playmakers around us."
Dooley is deep into his second season rebuilding a fallen program, and the process has hit a snag with injuries and another conference losing streak in October. The Vols are winless in the SEC and will need another strong November run, which begins tonight against Middle Tennessee State, to reach a second consecutive bowl game and earn much-needed extra practices.
The league's more established programs have brands of their own. Nick Saban's Alabama teams are built on physical defenses loaded with talent, size and speed. Florida's recent title teams were known for their speed. For LSU, it's a wealth of size along the offensive and defensive lines and talent at the skill spots that never seems to run out. Auburn and Arkansas now identify with their respective offenses under Gus Malzahn and Bobby Petrino.
"You establish a criteria in recruiting of what you want," Dooley said. "Inevitably you can't always get exactly what you want, so you get what you can get and then you build your team around your players. But we have a certain philosophy that we have on offense and defense that we don't deviate from."
Dooley has said previously that settling a program into a routine takes "several years" and that, after the first survival year, the second season is a year of fine-tuning and implementing for year three. The situation he walked into at UT, though, presented more challenges after three years of attrition from back-to-back coaching staff changes. Of the 40 players who signed with UT in the 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes, 19 are no longer with the program, and a handful of the rest have made little impact.
That group would be Dooley's junior and seniors this season.
"It just depends on the situation," he said. "If you walk in and you've got a good group of juniors and seniors, you can do it really quickly. Every situation's unique. There's no blueprint for how to come in and put your stamp on a program. Everyone's unique.
"It depends on what happened before you got there, the recent success, the guys on the team, who you put together on your coaching staff, what kind of mess there is internally and culturally, how much support it is around the football. There's so many factors that impact how quickly you can get a program back to where it is that there's no way to say, 'You should do it in this year.'"
The offense's early-season success created some hope that the Vols might be ahead of schedule. With quarterback Tyler Bray slinging the ball to receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera, UT's offense scored 45 points rather easily against a Cincinnati team that's now No. 23 in the country with just the lone loss in Knoxville. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney built his reputation on the offenses he helped direct earlier this decade at Purdue with quarterbacks Drew Brees and Kyle Orton.
Combine September of this season with November of last season, when Bray took over and sparked a struggling offense by throwing to receiver Denarius Moore and tight end Luke Stocker (both NFL draft picks) and reliable receiver Gerald Jones, and the offensive brand appears to be a big-play passing game. The offensive line is further confirmation of that. A unit that's allowed 18 less sacks than it had at this point last season has struggled mightily with its blocking in the run game.
"[If] we do what we do and we execute it, it looks pretty dang good," Dooley said. "Put a lot of points on the board and great on third down. When we don't -- bad throwing and catching and we're not running it the way we need to run it -- it looks bad and then you start questioning what you do. We've got a great system. It works and we've just got to do a good job executing."
With Hunter and Bray on the shelf with injuries, the offense has sputtered and lost that identity. UT has totaled 28 points in four games, though only one of those was with a healthy Bray.
"I feel like we had a lot going this year," James said. "We had some injuries and stuff like that, but next year we're going to have to come back stronger. You can't really use [injuries] as an excuse, but people do. We've now known that Tyler and Justin weren't going to play for weeks now, so somebody had to step up, and we all have to step up."
All but five of the 24 players on UT's offensive two-deep chart are first- or second-year players, not including sophomores Bray and Hunter. Only half of the defensive two-deep list fits that description, though eight of the Vols' top 10 tacklers are first- or second-year players.
As many as seven defensive players from the 2011 class could start tonight on a unit that's 42nd nationally in total defense after finishing 69th last season.
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, whom Texas deemed valuable enough to pursue after last season, was known for his multiple looks and blitzes at Boise State. Like the offense, he's had to build his defense at UT around his personnel.
"Well, I think you're always going to do that," he said. "You're always going to recruit and try to get the best players you can get, and once you have them, what can we be great at? Where are our strengths and where are our weaknesses? Even the best teams out there are going to have strengths and weaknesses, and I think you build it around that.
"You have a scheme in mind of what you want, but at the end of the day, you need the players, you need to build it around them and not try try to fit a square peg into a round hole by saying, 'We're going to do this no matter what.'"
Wilcox wouldn't go into if what he's done in his first two seasons at UT match ideally what he wants to do.
"You always want more, you always want better and that's how it is," he said. "You're never satisfied as a coach. Hopefully you're never satisfied as a player, and that's what helps you grow and hopefully perform at a higher and higher level because you're always looking to reach this goal that's probably unattainable. That's how we approach it; that's what you're shooting toward.
"As long as we're improving and getting better at each position and as a defense, that's what's important."
Like James, defensive end Marlon Walls needed a pause before assessing what he thought was the current national perception of the Vols. The always honest sophomore grew up a UT fan just outside of Memphis in Olive Branch, Miss.
"I don't know what the nation's perspective is on us, but my perspective is going back to how Tennessee used to be, we've got a long way to go," he said. "We've got to get tougher. We've got to get tougher. That's just my expectations of the team because I know what it used to be like.
"In my eyes, [it's] never going to be good enough and could always be better. I think we're taking steps to getting better. We've just got to keep challenging each other and learn how to finish."