March 22, 2011
BY JOSH PATE
KNOXVILLE -- Welcome to Year 1.
Yes, Derek Dooley is leading the Tennessee Volunteers into their second spring practice. Yes, Dooley is working with the second recruiting class that he signed. And yes, he's calling the start of this season Year 1.
"As long as our team is focused on continuous improvement, I think we'll keep moving in the right direction," Dooley said. "I kind of feel like this is Year 1 and last year was Year 0. It was such a unique situation that we walked into last season. It didn't feel like your first season."
Tennessee's first season with Dooley at the helm was certainly unique. He was named head coach on Jan. 15 and had 20 days to secure his first recruiting class. He had less than two months to gather a staff and meet the players before walking onto the field for spring practice. Then he and the staff had to teach the players expectations, how to practice, and how he and his staff were approaching the season.
And it goes both ways as the team sits with a level of comfort now because they know what is expected of them.
"Last year at this time, I was so nervous," said sophomore offensive lineman Ju'Wuan James. "I was asking everybody on the team, `What's practice going to be like? What's this going to be like?' "
The problem was, James' teammates were in the same boat. They were trying to get accustomed to their third head coach in three years. Going into spring practice, which begins Tuesday afternoon, the first couple of weeks won't be spent on logistics.
Last season was a learning experience during the months of March and April. They were learning the tempo expectations and how physical the coaches wanted players to be in practice. They were learning schemes, too, a process that continued well into fall camp.
In a word, last spring was all about "survival," according to Dooley - survival by the players, and survival by the coaches as well.
"It was so atypical of a coach coming into a program," Dooley said. "There was so much emotional baggage, and it was difficult for everyone to get their arms around everything. This year, everybody understands each other. There's not a lot of newness, and because of that, we can dive in to lot of teaching and coaching without a lot of other stuff.
"You don't have to sit and explain, `Hey guys, this drill is supposed to be run in the south end zone going this direction.' You're doing a lot less explaining expectations and doing more of what you were hired to do, which is teaching and coaching the players."
Ditto for the players.
"Now I just feel more comfortable with what's ahead," James said. "I feel like I can focus more on getting better on technique and different things instead of in the back of my mind being nervous. I feel like Coach Dooley has us going in the right direction and we're going to do good things."
Perhaps the best part about James making such a statement is that offensive line was one of the questions heading into last year's spring practice. After drenching freshmen in experience, the 2011 version has the challenge of transferring the excitement and pomp of the first year into being an every-down Southeastern Conference player. That burden weighs heaviest on the offensive line, particularly in the running game.
"When we tried to run we did well some games, and some games we were not as consistent," James said. "Now I think we have the repetitions and the experience, and it should go a lot smoother. We keep saying we've got to get Tauren (Poole) over 2,000 yards. Every time we talk to each other, we keep saying that we've got to get down and just pound the defensive line. That's all it comes down to."
Poole, who finished his junior season with more than 1,000 yards, said the challenge for him in the new year will be trust, only in a different way. Last year, he was learning to trust a new coaching staff. This year, he's learning to trust the more mature offensive line unit.
Fortunately for the Vols, the trust with the coaching staff is already there. Tuesday's focus will be on preparing for fall, not educating the team.
"I wouldn't say it will be easy," Dooley said. "There will be a lot better comfort level. It's never easy."
It won't be easy for the players, either. But at least they have a clear purpose aside from adjusting to their new coach.
"I'm tired of losing," Poole said. "I'm ready to win some ballgames. We've got to get to work."