HOOVER, Ala. — Based on the amount of time Derek Dooley spent answering questions at the podium Thursday at the 2012 SEC Media Days, the Volunteers haven't generated much interest outside of Knoxville.
The third-year UT coach spoke for a noticeably shorter amount of time than his 13 fellow SEC coaches at the Wynfrey Hotel over the three-day spectacle.
Yet, despite coming off back-to-back losing seasons and a 2011 campaign that ended with a disappointing streak-ending loss to Kentucky, Dooley appeared upbeat and excited about the upcoming season, a year the SEC media picked the Vols to finish fifth in the eastern division.
"It's been a tough four years in Tennessee," Dooley said. "I know, of course, the SEC has enjoyed taking advantage of our tough times, but there's a nice mood on our team right now that you're not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore.
"The biggest thing is the maturity level of the team. I've really been proud of the work that these guys have put in from a team chemistry (and) from a leadership standpoint. Just a lot more emotional maturity than we've had. So this group has
The Vols' three player representatives in Hoover — junior quarterback Tyler Bray, junior right tackle Ja'Wuan James and senior linebacker Herman Lathers — echoed Dooley's excitement.
"We haven't had the seasons Tennessee's had in the past, but we're going to try to change that," Bray said. "We need to get Tennessee back to where it used to be. We're used to winning championships. This last couple of years, we haven't been winning ball games. If we can just get Tennessee back to where it's supposed to be it'll be a great place to be."
Junior wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers was the Vols' lone selection on the coaches' preseason All-SEC first-team. Last season, Rogers led the conference with 67 receptions, and his 1,040 receiving yards and nine touchdown catches were second-best in the league.
Fellow junior wide receiver Justin Hunter was elected to the second-team by the league's coaches despite playing in just a little over two games last season. Senior defensive back Prentiss Waggner joined Hunter on the second-team.
Senior Dallas Thomas was on the third team, as was sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson. Thomas started every game the last two years at left tackle, but is sliding inside to left guard this year, allowing sophomore Antonio "Tiny" Richardson to play left tackle. Johnson led all SEC freshman last season with 80 tackles was a consistence Freshman All-American.
With more depth than in the previous two years, the Vols should be more competitive in the second halves of games and withstand injuries — if they occur — better than last year.
"Our team knows we can hang with anybody," Bray said. "We've just got to put it together and execute. Last year, we'd execute for a half, the first half, then come out in the second half and just fall apart.
"If we can put it together for four quarters we can hang with anybody."