KNOXVILLE - Derek Dooley has remained publicly silent since his second season as Tennessee's football coach abruptly ended with an embarrassing loss to Kentucky in late November.

He's not been hiding under a rock, though.

While keeping his focus on the players and coaches in his own program, Dooley also noticed some of what was happening elsewhere -- most notably, the decisions by Akron, Memphis and Kansas to fire coaches Rob Ianello, Larry Porter and Turner Gill after just two seasons. That trio combined to post 10 wins in their short tenures, which is one less than Dooley's 11 wins in two seasons at UT.

The message, from Dooley's perspective, was clear.

"Hey, buddy, every year you're on the line," he said in his first public appearance since the loss in Lexington 38 days ago sent the Volunteers into an offseason with a bitter taste. "That's the way it is, and that's part of the profession."

Dooley will be back for his third season aware of the mounting pressure to win more games. The Vols are just 11-14 the past two seasons and 4-12 in the pressure-packed Southeastern Conference. For a program that's entering year three of a rebuilding project, the perception is shaky at best.

UT will have four new assistant coaches. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon (Washington) and special teams coordinator Eric Russell (Washington State) made lateral moves to be closer to their native areas. Receivers coach Charlie Baggett chose retirement, though UT officially gave no label to his departure.

Four recruits either have signed elsewhere or decommitted, and Dooley and UT took a publicity hit for initially refusing to grant freshman receiver DeAnthony Arnett an unconditional release to transfer closer to his sick father. None of those events helped to quell the negativity from the program's first back-to-back losing seasons in 100 years.

Yet Dooley was upbeat Tuesday about his program's future.

"I've never been this excited about an offseason in all my coaching career," he said, "because as disappointed as I am about how the season ended, I'm equally optimistic about our team and our program heading into next year [for the] first time since I've been here.

"We have a group of young people who I've been talking to over the holidays and met with before we broke who believe in Tennessee. They believe in the program, they believe in our future and they're fired up about going to work next season. It's allowed us to really sharpen our focus as coaches."

The Vols could have as many as 19 starters back. The core group of freshmen and sophomores from last year's team is older and more experienced with more time together. With most of the players returning from their hometowns between now and the start of classes next Wednesday, the process of moving forward truly can begin.

However, given the bad ending to the season and the blowout losses to Alabama, LSU and Arkansas, most of the excitement is coming from within the program. And Dooley is aware of its appearance from the outside.

"I think it's understandable why there could be a perception that it's not that good right now," he said. "But I'm not concerned at all about what's real, because what's real is this program has been put, in the last 22 months, on as good a foundation as we could ever do. I think there is excitement internally. I can't control what people think and perceive. I can only control what's going on inside the building.

"I think if you talk to Justin and you talk to Peter and you talk to Eric and you talk to DeAnthony, I think they'll all feel the same way, that we're doing the right things, that we're heading in the right direction and the success is going to come and the worst is behind us."