KNOXVILLE — Coach Derek Dooley took over a Tennessee program in the midst of relative chaos in 2010. He was the third coach in three years, the NCAA was investigating the program and players were departing at a rapid pace.
After two more tumultuous years on the field, Dooley is beginning to see signs of stability returning to the program. He expects some of that stability to begin to manifest itself on the practice field this fall camp.
"Everybody out there understands the expectations,” Dooley said. “They understand how we do things, they believe in it, and with a deep group, we've got more guys out there. So, it's a very different feeling and it should be. We're going into our third year.”
One sign of increased stability is the success the Vols are having at getting their recruits on campus and qualified. With the news that all 23 newcomers are set to participate on Friday, that makes two consecutive years that every signee has qualified and made it to campus. The Vols had a total of seven signees fail to qualify between 2008 and 2010.
Dooley sees that accomplishment as a testament to the work his staff puts in evaluating players on the front end, and the effort the signees make to finish up their high school or junior college careers strong in the classroom.
“It's a combination of things,” Dooley said. “I think balancing your class with how many at-risk guys you take, and we usually have a pretty good indicator early on whether or not they are going to qualify. It's more important now more than ever, because you can't over-sign. You can't go over 25. Hey, it wouldn't happen if those guys didn't put in a lot of work and finish strong, and they all did."
It’s also a good sign that fewer newcomers will be relied on as major contributors in 2012. The Vols have littered the field with freshmen and sophomores the last two seasons.
In 2011, 21 freshmen played, and as many as six started in some games. The Vols were also the only team in FBS with three freshmen — linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt and safety Brian Randolph — among their top five leaders in total tackles. That youth should pay dividends in the future, but it’s not the model Dooley wants his program to follow in the future.
“I think this year is more what we hope is the norm every year,” Dooley said of his expectations for the newcomers. “(Last year) we probably put some guys in that shouldn't be playing. This year, it's going to be if they come in and perform better than what we have, then we're going to play them. We're hoping we don't have to play 17 or 18 like we did. Generally, the rule of thumb is around eight to 10 guys, where you're integrating them, they're playing and maybe one or two guys are making a difference because it's hard."
Dooley was asked about one of the setbacks the Vols had over the offseason from a stability and maturity standpoint. Quarterback Tyler Bray was reported to police in an alleged case of vandalism on July 23 that involved the junior quarterback throwing bottles and golf balls at a car in an apartment parking lot.
No charges ever stemmed from the incident, but Dooley did address the issue Thursday.
“I didn’t handle it much differently than I would have with another player,” he said. “But what is different about it is he’s our quarterback, so we handled it and kind of moved past it.”
Moving on from the past was a theme both Dooley and the players discussed Thursday. Senior offensive lineman Dallas Thomas thinks the team has a new sense of togetherness and maturity that will help it succeed in 2012.
“That’s real big key,” Thomas said. “Last year we just all fell apart, like everybody was trying to do their own thing and thinking about themselves instead of pulling together. That’s what we’ve been doing now — when we do anything now it’s going to be together, nobody is going at it alone.”