KNOXVILLE — Tennessee’s last two spring football practices were all about getting to know a new coach. The Volunteers are kicking off their second spring session under Derek Dooley focusing on how to return to being a competitive program again.
The Vols, who finished 2010 with a 6-7 record after a loss in the Music City Bowl, will work on becoming bigger, faster and stronger than their Southeastern Conference foes when they return to practice this afternoon.
“As long as our team is focused on continual improvement I feel like we’ll continue moving in the right direction,” Dooley said Monday. “I kind of feel like this is year one and last year was year zero. It was such a unique situation that we walked into last season. It didn’t feel like your first year. I feel like right now this is year one.”
Dooley had only been at Tennessee for two months when he began last year’s spring practice session. He spent the first two weeks of the period trying to learn who the players were and teach them what he expected of them.
This time he’ll skip straight to working on skills, improving the Vols’ knowledge of their offensive and defensive schemes and shaping the team’s dynamic, which promises to be far different without 2010’s vocal senior class. Dooley estimates that two-thirds of the 2011 squad is underclassmen.
“The first few days with this team were as quiet as I’ve ever seen, but every year’s a new year as it relates to team chemistry,” he said.
Running back Tauren Poole said he’s working on becoming a more vocal leader. One of two returning starters who will be seniors next season, Poole ran for 1,034 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010.
“Guys are looking at me more now to speak up than they did last year,” he said. “When things are going wrong, I see a lot of guys turning to me. I’ve just got to take that leadership role.”
Though Tennessee will be short on upperclassmen, the Vols will return quarterback Tyler Bray, who as a freshman threw for an average 205.4 yards and 18 touchdowns in nine games.
Also returning are starting offensive linemen Zach Fulton, James Stone and Ja’Wuan James — all freshmen who made significant contributions in 2010. Dooley said he expects even greater strides from them this spring.
The coach is still looking for players to step up and fill a depleted secondary, defensive line and special teams.
Dooley moved offensive lineman Daniel Hood to defensive tackle and backup quarterback Tyler Page to safety.
He also expects a number of Tennessee’s 28 incoming freshmen to step in and bolster depth depleted by injuries and coaching turnovers after the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
“There’s a lot of freshmen that go out there and flash, and everybody gets excited about them and they never pan out to anything. And then there’s a lot of freshmen that go out and have a great freshman year and they have a terrible sophomore year because they think they’re going to be pretty good. It’s our job to make sure that neither of those scenarios happens.”