KNOXVILLE - Derek Dooley insists the state of his Tennessee football roster has improved dramatically in the past 25 months of his tenure.
The Volunteers' makeup, in particular, has the third-year coach excited.
When the rest of UT's 2012 signing class arrives on campus and the Vols open training camp in August, Dooley will have only 17 players he didn't recruit comprising his team. Eight players remain from Phillip Fulmer's 2008 class. Lane Kiffin's lone class in 2009 has just nine players left.
That means it's an important year for Dooley's first class, most of which will be juniors this fall, to put their stamp on the program in a greater fashion.
"This is the key year for them," Dooley said during his 30-minute interview with the Times Free Press earlier this week. "This is the time to grow up and take ownership of the football team and take responsibility for the things that don't go well on the team and go make it happen. They've shown a willingness to do that so far."
The Vols' junior class includes the key parts of an offense that may need to carry UT while a transitioning defense continues to adapt. The group includes quarterback Tyler Bray, playmaking receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers, tailback Rajion Neal, tight end Mychal Rivera and three of UT's top six offensive linemen in Ja'Wuan James, Zach Fulton and James Stone.
It's the core of a group that Dooley hopes can provide a different dynamic than last season, when team unity was an issue and a challenge for the coaching staff.
"I said it last year, that was part of the challenge last year from a team chemistry standpoint," Dooley said. "We had upperclassmen who only a few of them played, so you had a lot of them that were very disgruntled. We had a sophomore class that really wasn't ready, maturity-wise, to take ownership of the team. Then we had a real talented freshmen class just trying to survive.
"The net result was what it was, but hopefully that extra year's going to be a big boost for this class."
The Times Free Press asked five questions before Tennessee began a critical four weeks of spring practice last month. Today, we examine how the Volunteers progressed toward answering those questions.
1. How will the players mesh with seven new assistant coaches?
The two-way learning process began back in January for most of UT's new staff, but the on-field work provided the first true test of players adapting to new coaching styles and coaches evaluating their personnel.
Defensively, the Vols all seem intrigued about what their new defense under coordinator Sal Sunseri will be, evidenced by their willingness to put in extra time in learning the schemes. Offensively, offensive line coach Sam Pittman was symbolic of the clean slate for a maligned group that may be one of the deepest on the team. Players spoke positively throughout spring of the new staff.
Dooley has touted the freshness as a positive for his football team. Just how positive can it be?
"It just depends not the quality of the coaching and the connection the coaches have to the players to sell what they're doing," he said Monday. "So far, I think it's been very positive."
2. How much of new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri's defense can the Vols get installed in 15 practices?
Sunseri made the goal of 80 percent clear in his first meeting with the media during the second week of spring. Most players admitted they were struggling early on as UT's coaching staff inundated them with material. Some even equated it to a taking another difficult class.
During the last week of spring, Sunseri said the Vols were on track.
"We're doing a lot of good things," he said. "I'm extremely excited about where these kids have come with it. We have challenged them mentally, we have challenged them physically and they're learning how to deal with both. I'm pleased with these kids.
"Am I satisfied? No. Are we ever going to be satisfied? Probably not."
3. Is it open competition along the offensive line?
The Vols tweaked their starting five up front, which isn't surprising after finishing 116th nationally in rushing last season. Fifth-year senior Dallas Thomas, who started every game at left tackle the past two seasons, slid to left guard to make room for sophomore Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, who isn't lacking for potential in his mammoth 6-foot-6, 329-pound frame. Tackle Ja'Wuan James anchored the right side of the line with Alex Bullard providing continuity at center.
The competition at right guard between James Stone and Zach Fulton will continue, and the Dooley feels he has depth up front for the first time in his tenure. The offense made improving the running game an emphasis. For the line, it was playing more physical and developing the accompanying attitude.
"[I've seen] more physicality, an appreciation for physicality," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "It's more of an attitude and a demeanor, that they understand that to run the ball we've got to hit people. I feel like we've accomplished that."
4. Who's playing where in the defensive front seven?
The biggest front-seven development was the health of linebacker Herman Lathers, the fifth-year senior who missed all of last season after an ankle injury. He took a big step this spring, which would give UT a quality player in addition to a player who can provide leadership. A healthy Lathers allows Curt Maggitt to move outside, giving UT a solid linebacking corps.
On the defensive line, though, UT remains unsettled. Maurice Couch, Greg Clark and Daniel Hood left spring bracketed at nose tackle, while Marlon Walls, fifth-year senior Steven Fowlkes and junior-college transfer Darrington Sentimore exit spring as the Vols' top three defensive ends. UT's run defense was gashed to a degree in the spring game.
The goal in making the transition to more of a 3-4 base defense, Dooley said, was to create more plays.
"You look back on all three phases, and there's a lot of things we could have improved on," he said. "I felt like on defense we didn't really have any impact on the games from a creating standpoint. Sacks, turnovers, negative plays.
"It was sort of a bleed-to-death [defense], even though statistically we were respectable. I just never felt like we impacted the game, and that was something I wanted to move away from and get into something a little more aggressive and coach a little more aggressiveness and a little more deny the ball to create some things."
5. What happens in the secondary?
Part of Dooley's aforementioned goal of becoming more aggressive includes more press coverage from the Vols' cornerbacks. That group collectively struggled last year more than perhaps any unit besides the offensive line. UT allowed too many big plays through the air, and with the same cast returning, the Vols felt a change was needed.
Thus UT hired Derrick Ansley, a former graduate assistant under Sunseri at Alabama, to teach more press-coverage and bump-and-run techniques. The Vols rotated Justin Coleman, Izauea Lanier, Prentiss Waggner and Marsalis Teague at the two spots most of spring. It's a competition that will continue into the summer and fall.
"I hate to sound like a broken record," Ansley said last week, "but we're still very inconsistent. One day, one guy will have a good day, and the next day, the guy behind him will have a good day. We're still fluctuating our positions.
"We've got a lot of guys with experience, but nobody's really said, 'OK, this is my spot,' or stepped up and said, 'I'm the guy.' We're still rolling the guys."
At safety, the only rolling has been Brian Randolph, the sophomore who made plays all over the field all spring. At the other spot, Byron Moore made strides in taking over that spot, though he'll have to fend off Brent Brewer. Though he spent all spring in a non-contact jersey coming off ACL surgery, Brewer was able to do plenty after a first-week switch from outside linebacker.