The Vols didn’t have the full number of players, lacked experience and were decimated by injuries.
Entering the 2012 football season, the time for excuses is over. For Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley, the time to win is now.
The Vols have won just 11 games in Dooley’s two seasons and are currently mired in the school’s worst stretch since 1977-78.
Dooley needs to find a way to win, and fast.
“It’s been a tough four years in Tennessee. 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.”
If Dooley sounds confident, he has his reasons. The Vols have a full compliment of players, are loaded with experience and quarterback Tyler Bray, who missed five games last season with a broken thumb, is back at 100 percent.
“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,” Dooley said on Thursday at SEC Media Days in Hoover.
“The number one reason for that is for the first time we have a settled roster. We have a full 85 on scholarship and we have 19 starters back so we have a lot of experience. Two years ago, when I was standing here, we were going into a season with a combined three starts, and now we’re going in with a combined 106.”
Tennessee’s struggles in 2011 centered on offense. The Vols averaged just 20.3 points per game (10th in the SEC). Tennessee’s lack of a steady rushing attack left the Vols relying heavily on their passing game. The team was last in the SEC in rushing offense (90.1 yards per game), averaging a paltry 2.8 yards per carry.
What does Dooley feel the Vols need to improve on for the upcoming season?
“Well, we need to improve on just about everything, because we really weren’t good at anything,” Dooley said. “Certainly on offense, it starts with the run game. We have absolutely no chance to compete for an SEC title if we run it the way we ran it last year. We put a big commitment in the spring on improving that area.”
Sophomore Marlin Lane (280 yards and two touchdowns on 75 attempts) is Tennessee’s top returning running back.
The highlight of the offense should be a pair of juniors: Bray and receiver Da’Rick Rogers.
Bray passed for 1,983 yards while throwing 17 touchdowns and only six interceptions despite playing in just seven games.
Rogers finished the season with 1,040 receiving yards along with nine touchdowns — the second-highest total in the SEC.
Bray’s looking forward to returning to the field and helping the Vols take a step toward respectability.
“Last year, when I broke the thumb, I had never had an injury I had to sit out a game for, so I wasn’t really pleased with that. I’m just trying to get back this year and show the nation not only what I can do, but what the University of Tennessee can do,” Bray said.
“We haven’t had the seasons Tennessee’s had in the past, but we’re going to try to change that. We have great leadership this year and a good offense and a good defense.”
Tennessee started last season 3-1, but lost four in a row to the upper tier teams in the SEC: LSU, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.
The Vols were outscored 136-62 over that stretch.
Tennessee’s only SEC win came in a 27-21 overtime victory over Vanderbilt and the Vols missed out on a bowl trip with a frustrating 10-7 loss at Kentucky in the season finale.
The loss to the Wildcats has stuck with the Vols.
“It definitely was a lot of frustration, especially after the loss to Kentucky,” offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James said. “We all just came together as players and as a group and just talked about it and said, ‘We’re on a mission this year to bring Tennessee back to what it used to be.’ We left it at that, and we’ve just been working all offseason just so we can do that.
“Everybody’s putting it on us as an offense. It’s my third year going into it. It’s the third year for a lot of guys on the offensive line, and collectively as a group, we like it to be on our shoulders instead of anything else. I feel like our offense can do anything. We have running backs. We have receivers. We have a lot of skill guys. Our offensive line has a lot of depth now and a lot of experience. I feel like we’ll be great.”
Tennessee opens the season on Friday, Aug. 31 at the Georgia Dome against North Carolina State.
The first SEC game is at home vs. Florida in Week 3.
“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,” Dooley said.