HOOVER, Ala. — He didn’t do an impression, but Derek Dooley quoted some Elvis on Wednesday when talking to local media about the Vols’ chances in 2012.
“I’m not here to sell the team,” Dooley said when asked his marketing plan for the day. “It’s like that old (Elvis) song — a little less conversation and a little more action. That’s about where we are. Selling isn’t going to do me any good. We have to go out and win.”
As the Vols enter year three of the Dooley era, the time for talk has indeed passed. The Vols are 11-14 the last two years and the excuses of youth and injuries are now in the past.
Despite the media picking the Vols to finish fifth in the SEC East, Dooley thinks he has a squad that can not only compete in, but win the new seven-team East.
“Absolutely we can,” Dooley said. “We have a better roster than we’ve had since I’ve been here. We’re deeper, more experienced and have more talent. It doesn’t mean we’re where we need to be, but you know, yeah, we could’ve competed for the SEC East last year, but we didn’t have a lot of depth and experience and that reared its ugly head as the season went on. We don’t have those issues like we did last year.”
A lot of that experience and talent comes on the offensive side of the ball. The Vols return 10 starters, including a quarterback in Tyler Bray that is on the preseason watch list for the Maxwell and Manning Award and two receivers in Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers who have also received numerous preseason honors.
Throw in newcomer receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, the No. 1 junior college recruit in the nation in the 2012 class according to 247Sports.com, and the offense has a chance to be particularly explosive.
“(Offensive coordinator Jim) Chaney is going to call great plays,” Bray said. “As long as we execute those plays, we’ll be very explosive. We’ve been doing really well in 7-on-7 drills this summer — the defense has struggled a little bit. CP (Patterson) has looked good so far. He’s 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4 and he’s physical like Da’Rick (Rogers) and can out jump anybody like Justin (Hunter).”
Team bonding has been a big theme in the offseason after reports of a fractured locker room in the midst of a humbling 10-7 loss to Kentucky at the end of the 2011 season.
Laser tag, video game tournaments and mountain climbing were among the offseason activities the Vols took part in to build that team chemistry. Offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James said the offensive line in particular has spent a lot of time bonding. They’re even thinking about heading to Dollywood before the season starts back.
“We may not fit in all the rides, so we’ll have to kind of make do,” James said. “But really, chemistry is key for us. It’s all about OLP (offensive line pride).”
Dooley doesn’t have a win total in mind as the Vols head into his crucial third year in the program. Many have speculated that he will need eight or more wins to keep his job, but he’s more concerned with the competitive spirit of the team.
Last season, the Vols were blown out in the second half of several key SEC games such as Alabama, LSU and Arkansas. Dooley hopes the days of not being able to compete with SEC powers for four quarters are long gone.
“I do hope we go out and lay it on the line and take every game into the fourth quarter and see what happens,” Dooley said. “I think we have a team that’s equipped to do that. We have a lot more experience and talent and we’re a lot more mature. Now it’s just a matter of notching up some wins.”
Dooley did get a vote of confidence from Nick Saban, his former boss at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins. Saban said he thought the Vols had a stroke of bad luck in 2011 with injuries and sees Dooley being a long-tenured coach in Knoxville.
“I think he has done a really good job,” Saban said. “He inherited a very difficult situation and I think Derek has done a lot of things to create program stability there.”