DOOLEY 2012: Change is Coming Part I - Players


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This is an excerpt from Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 magazine, on sale now.

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In this election year, the only issue that will truly matter in Derek Dooley's bid for another term as head coach at the University of Tennessee is wins and losses. The count currently stands at eleven for and fourteen against over the last two years, piled on top of 7-6 from the candidate who fled to the west coast in the middle of the night and the 5-7 campaign that ended Phillip Fulmer's seventeen year stay in office. That makes the Vols just 23-27 in the last four years. Derek Dooley did not cause most of Tennessee's problems, but he is responsible for fixing all of them. And so with patience dead - murdered on November 26 in Lexington – Derek Dooley knows he must win now, in Year Three of a unique rebuilding project. It must become a winning project in 2012, or a new face will take office in 2013.

As the campaign heats up this fall, here are the key issues that can make the biggest difference between wins and losses for Dooley and the Vols:

Players: Experience, Depth, and Talent


The greatest cause of Tennessee's downfall is the program's three year recruiting failure from 2007-2009. Recruiting is never an exact science and each class failed in a different way, but the three together spelled disaster for the Tennessee program.

Phillip Fulmer's 2007 class was praised by all, rated third best in the nation by Rivals.com. It produced Eric Berry, who became the most-loved and most-acclaimed Vol since Peyton Manning. But among the sixteen four and five star players in this class, only Berry, Gerald Jones, and Chris Walker became consistent, multi-year starters. Fulmer's 2008 class was a disaster (by Tennessee's standards) on signing day, and not much changed from there. A class ranked 35th nationally produced no consistent starters among four and five star players.

Lane Kiffin's 2009 class was rated tenth by Rivals.com, and many of its members saw instant playing time. But just three years later, more than a dozen of Kiffin's signees have left the program, including seven of the nine highest rated players in the class. A group that was once so promising with the likes of Janzen Jackson, Bryce Brown, Nu'Keese Richardson, and David Oku has become another black hole of depth. Aside from the superstar play of Eric Berry and the healthy contributions of Gerald Jones and Chris Walker, the Vols completely struck out on their highest rated prospects three years in a row. Tennessee signed thirty-one four or five star players from 2007-2009, and those three were the only long-term starters.

Of course, none of that is Derek Dooley's fault. But it now becomes his responsibility; Dooley must win, and win now, with the talent at his disposal. For the second year in a row, Dooley's Vols will struggle to find senior leadership: only Ben Bartholomew, Mychal Rivera, Dallas Thomas, and Prentiss Waggner will take the field as returning senior starters this fall. Herman Lathers is back from a gruesome leg injury that cost him all of last season, but his presence will be a welcome addition to the senior class. There are a few experienced reserves like Zach Rogers and Marsalis Teague. But against Kentucky on November 24 this fall, just thirteen seniors will run through the T for the final time at Neyland Stadium. Because of the recruiting failures of previous administrations, the Vols could face a void in senior leadership.

However, Tennessee will not face a void in depth and experience this time around. Though the senior class may be thin, the Vols return twenty starters from last year's team. And Derek Dooley's third straight Top 20 recruiting class will arrive on campus in August to complete the three year cycle of replenishment. The Vols now have legitimate options on the two-deep depth chart at every position on the field, a first-time luxury for Dooley in a league where it's the norm.

Depth and experience will only go so far; twenty returning starters from a team that went 5-7 could be a blessing or a curse. But there is reason to believe Tennessee has legitimate talent among their legitimate options on the depth chart, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

The Vols have had only three players drafted in the last two years: Luke Stocker and Denarius Moore in the 2011 NFL Draft, and Malik Jackson in 2012. It was the first time since 1974-75 that the Vols went consecutive seasons without a player taken in the first two rounds of the draft, and the first time since 1962-63 that the program had just three players taken overall in a two year period. But already there is significant early entry hype surrounding junior quarterback Tyler Bray and junior wide receivers Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter. Hunter's ACL injury in the third game of the 2011 season left us with only one true glimpse at how well these three can play together: against Cincinnati, Bray became the first Vol to throw for more than 400 yards in a game other than Peyton Manning, while Rogers and Hunter were the first Vol duo to each catch ten passes. All of this against a Cincinnati team that went on to win ten games.

And it's not just the stars in the passing game that have a chance to shine. The returning offensive linemen have accounted for 99 starts during their time at Tennessee, and that doesn't include 6'6" 329 lbs. sophomore Antonio Richardson, who will take over at left tackle while senior Dallas Thomas slides to guard. Along with the returning Herman Lathers, the linebacking corps returns A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt off stellar freshman campaigns; the duo finished second and third on the team in tackles last fall. And Prentiss Waggner returns in the secondary with seven career interceptions, three taken back for scores.

There are questions to be sure, most notably how this team will adjust to a 3-4 defense and if the running game can improve after a disastrous 2011 season in which Tennessee finished 116th nationally in rushing offense. But for the first time under Derek Dooley's watch, the Vols have the depth, experience, and talent to compete in the SEC.

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Order the 116-page full color print version of Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 by July 3 and get free shipping, a free copy of the ebook that you can download immediately, and delivery of the print edition the week of July 9. It's the only Tennessee Football preseason magazine you need. Full details here.

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