HOOVER, Ala. — It's been a tough two years for head coach Derek Dooley on Rocky Top, but at the 2012 SEC Media Day Dooley has been more confident than ever.
"I told some of the guys earlier that I feel better today about where we are as a program than at any point since I've been in Knoxville, and I mean that," said Dooley.
The Volunteers do have some promise and talk surrounding the team heading into 2012 that they haven't had since Dooley arrived on campus. Quarterback Tyler Bray looks to play his first full season for Tennessee and a trio of big-play wideouts highlight the potentially explosive Volunteer offense. But nothing has yet been proven by his wide receivers.
"We really only have one guy that's gone through 12 games and been productive in the league. Justin (Hunter) is flashing great things for us, but he only played three games. All the other guys are new," Dooley said.
Tennessee returns 2011 All-SEC receivers Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, and brings in highly touted receiver Cordarrell Patterson to boost the Vols offensive threat.
Questions still linger about the program though, and for a team that finished last in rushing offense in 2011 in the conference, there is a lot of work that needed to be done this off-season.
"It starts with the run game," said Dooley. "We have absolutely no chance to compete for an SEC title if we run it the way we ran it last year."
The Vols finished last in every major rushing statistic except touchdowns, finished 11th in the conference, and put a major emphasis on addressing the issue. Dooley brought in running back coach and former Volunteer Jay Graham from South Carolina to help his backs and try to get the run game on track, and Tennessee has committed to fix the running game during the off-season.
The offensive line was a major question mark for the team last year, but Dooley believes that, with all of the experience on the line now, things will turn around for the Vols.
"Two years ago when I was standing here, we were going into a season with a combined three starts, and now we're going
Two-year starter Ju'Wuan James echoed his coach's statement and believes this is the season the offensive line will turn it around.
"We've been through the fire together. We've all seen the ups and downs," said James. "It's great to know the person next to you to your right or to your left has been through it, and they have your back. It makes your job a lot easier because you can play with more confidence and play more relaxed."
Even with the Vols garnering more attention lately than in recent years, the Big Orange is still picked to finish fifth in the SEC East by the media.
"I'm excited about the season and I feel like we got a team that can go toe-to-toe for four quarters with all the teams in our league," said Dooley. "It's kind of like that song, 'A Little Less Conversation and a Little More Action,' so we have to go out and prove it."