The Tennessee football team began its spring practice in "year one" under Derek Dooley Tuesday afternoon.
According to the Volunteers' second-year coach, this season will be more of a typical first year for the coaching staff, whereas last year, staff and player turnover left UT with an undermanned team, which still managed to finish 6-7, despite two controversial losses to LSU and North Carolina.
"I feel like this is year one, and last year was year zero," Dooley said Monday at his pre-spring practice press conference. "It was such a unique situation we walked into last season, it didn't feel like your first year. I feel that right now, this is year one. We obviously need improvement everywhere. I think every spring you come in and you want to improve fundamentally at every position, you want to improve in the schematic knowledge the players have, you want to improve on the intangible values we build our program on, and you certainly want to start building a team dynamic — which this year will be very different from last year."
Dooley noticed the contrast from last year in the Vols' first practice on Tuesday.
"Well, it was a good first day," he said. "Certainty a lot better than the first day of spring last year, but we have along way to go.
"I think probably big-picture-wise, that it was just a good, smooth, crisp practice. Doesn't mean there (weren't) 8,000 mistakes, and the execution was terrible, but overall, there was a good tempo, the attitude was good, everybody understood what we were doing and it was a good day's work."
Prior to actually getting on the practice field, the players went through much-needed winter workouts, headed up by new strength and conditioning coach Ron McKeefery.
"We had an eight-week offseason program in the winter, and it was so important we get bigger, faster and stronger," Dooley said. "The stature of our team was well below what it needed to be to compete in this league. We put a really big emphasis on throwing around a lot of heavy weight — a lot — and learning how to strain. I think our players really responded, and I was pleased with the program. We made significant improvements in our strength levels and our speed."
With the advances already made, Dooley has raised the amount he is demanding out of each player and the team. But he knows it's a process.
"It's a continual pursuit for improvement every day," Dooley said. "I think it starts with setting a high standard of what we're trying to accomplish every day — probably a little higher than what we've set on them the past year."
Another reason the Vols have raised expectations is because the majority of last year's coaching staff returned. Only Chuck Smith, the former defensive line coach, and Bennie Wylie, the former strength and conditioning coach, are no longer a part of the staff. Peter Sirmon, a graduate assistant last year who worked mainly with the team's safeties, replaces Smith on the defensive side of the ball and will coach the linebackers. Lance Thompson, the linebackers coach last season, will coach the defensive line this year.
McKeefery replaced Wylie after Wylie accepted the same position at Texas.
The low staff turnover — compared to three head coaches in three years — will pay dividends going forward.
"We're going to be a lot further along in two main areas," Dooley said. "No. 1 is just organizationally how we practice — what's the expectation from a tempo, from a physicality (standpoint), what are these drills we're doing. And then No. 2 is, we are going to be a year into our schemes. We have continuity on offense, defense and special teams. I think that's going to help us get a lot more accomplished by the end of spring than last year. Last year, the first two weeks was survival — for coaches and players — trying to figure each other out."
Senior linebacker Austin Johnson went through the coaching carousel of the past few seasons, and he believes the staff changes affected the team's outlook. A problem Dooley has fixed.
"(Dooley) just wants us to have a goal," Johnson said. "I think we all kind of lost our expectations back when we kept switching coaches, and everybody was just kind of thinking about themselves. Coach Dooley is really thinking about us all coming together as a team and looking toward a single goal, and that's what we are, and that's a championship."
With such a young team, the incoming freshman class will be asked to contribute immediately.
Six of those freshmen — quarterback Justin Worley, wide receiver Vincent Dallas, tight end Brendan Downs, offensive guard Marcus Jackson, center Mack Crowder and defensive back Justin Coleman — enrolled in school in January and will go through spring practice with the team.
Following Tuesday's practice, Dooley noted the six, especially Jackson, didn't stand out, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
"You know what," Dooley said. "I didn't notice (Jackson), which was good. So I've got to go watch the film. He probably missed every block he tried, but it wasn't so bad I noticed him. We'll go watch the film and see how he did, but he blended right in and that's really a tribute — and really all those freshmen did, the mid-year guys — it's a tribute to the investment those guys have put in the last five weeks of trying to learn what to do enough to where they can function. They were just like the mid-year guys last year."
Last year's early enrollees included Ja'Wuan James, who started all 13 games at right tackle, and Tyler Bray, who started the final five games of the season at quarterback. Dooley is hoping to get similar production out of the mid-year players this year as well.
"You look at some of the key questions coming out of the spring but the biggest thing is can our freshmen — who energized our team a little bit — become dependable, every-down contributors in the SEC," Dooley said. "I think that's a big jump from being excited about a player as a freshman and then turning them into every-down starters who can help you compete for a championship. That's probably our biggest challenge for the spring."
Jackson on track to come back
Junior Janzen Jackson, the Vols' starting free safety last season who voluntarily withdrew from school earlier this semester, could still rejoin the program, possibly as early as this summer.
"He's not going to be with us this spring," Dooley said. "He seems to be managing his life well right now — on pace to come back, but that's day-to-day, month-to-month."
The Vols' other projected starting safety, sophomore Brent Brewer, was reinstated to the team after being arrested on a domestic assault charge on Feb. 23.
"Brent Brewer has been reinstated to the team," Dooley said. "He has served a five-week suspension from all team activities. Still, there are some other internal disciplinary measures that are being taken. One of them is suspension from a session of summer school, which will be significant."
Hughes misses first two practices
While Brewer's suspension was lifted, junior defensive tackle Montori Hughes missed the team's first two practices because of "team rule violations."
Hood moves to defense
Sophomore Daniel Hood, who played at Knoxville Catholic high school, moved from the offensive line to defensive tackle, according to Dooley.
Dooley on Pearl
The Vols began spring practice less than 24 hours after UT parted ways with men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl and his immediate staff. Dooley was asked about the situation following Tuesday's practice.
"There's not much I can say," he said. "I think everybody who's a part of Tennessee hurts a little bit right now. It's a real unfortunate sequence of events, but I know we have good leadership, and we'll get moving in the right direction, and all my focus is right now is helping football represent this university the way everybody wants it represented. That's our goal, and hopefully, it will translate to wins on the field next year."