KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee's spring football practice may be over, but that doesn't mean Derek Dooley will relax.
Less than 48 hours after his third Orange and White spring game as the Volunteers' coach, Dooley was back in his office Monday afternoon meeting with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri before a round of interviews.
With seven new assistant coaches and a new defense creating an atmosphere of freshness around the program, Dooley is upbeat about his team's progress in 15 spring workouts. The coach, in fact, has been that way all offseason, even when the season-ending loss to Kentucky that capped a disappointing was still fresh.
The roster stability is a major part of that.
"We're still not where we need to be in a lot of positions, but we're much more settled than we've ever been," Dooley said during his 30-minute interview with the Times Free Press. "We have a lot more competition at every position than we've ever had. We have a lot more experience than we've ever had.
"I think you look at the offensive line as sort of a microcosm of where we were and where we are. When I got here, they had a combined three starts, and now they have a combined 99 starts going into the season. That's going to give you a chance, a much better chance, to go out there and compete."
The Vols now enter a critical summer before the 2012 season that opens in 129 days against North Carolina State at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Dooley is 11-14 in two seasons in Knoxville, and the Vols won just once in SEC play last season. The two seasons under Dooley were the first back-to-back losing years in program history in 100 years.
Nevertheless, the coach believes his team has some ingredients that will lead to wins this fall.
"I think the combination of experience that we have [and] the combination of the maturity level of our team relative to what it was the last two years," Dooley said. "I think we've improved the quality of our players over the last couple of years in our recruiting efforts. We're on a big journey here, and at each step along the way you feel like it's getting better.
"Hopefully the dividends will be coming."
Dooley admitted the team still has holes. He's concerned about his kickers and the lack of "experience and a lot of production" along the defensive line, at cornerback and at running back. The Vols are so thin behind Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers at receiver that walk-on Jacob Carter was the most productive wideout this spring.
UT's defensive players still have to learn and master a new complex scheme, which will require much summer work. The Vols' process of evaluating its defensive personnel, Dooley said, will continue through the summer and into preseason training camp. Improving the run game and increasing the tempo continue to be focal points on offense.
Beyond the field, though, Dooley feels the Vols' good offseason carried into the spring. The coach spoke in March of his program's core values of discipline, effort, toughness and teamwork and the changes this offseason in how those are conveyed. It's a change that began at the top.
"You define a set of values that you're not going to compromise, and every day, every decision you make [is about] staying consistent within that realm," Dooley explained. "I think I've done a better job of that because ... I felt like I was probably guilty of making too many excuses because of our youth and feeling like we're putting too much on them. That was where I probably failed the team more than any way [-- by making] too many excuses for them, because we just put them in a situation with that much youth out there trying to carry the load.
"It was a tough thing. We're not going to do that anymore. That's the past."
Dooley said that message was "the first thing" he hold the team heading into the offseason, and the Vols have had time to respond.
"I know we've had a great offseason," Dooley said. "I'm not sure it's just because I said one thing. I think it's a lot of things that we've done. I think it's being consistent. Me saying that doesn't mean anything if I'm not going out there and living by it. It's the same thing with our coaches.
"I think there's been a lot more consistency in how we do things. We changed some things in the offseason to help us build a little more teamwork and leadership and competitiveness. I think that was real positive, and I think it's carried over into a good spring."
One that's just another step in the journey.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.