Tennessee coach Derek Dooley took the podium during Thursday’s first session at Southeastern Conference Media Days in Hoover, Ala.
Dooley talked about, among other things, the importance of finally having a “settled roster,” how it’s been a tough four years for the Vols’ program, the areas where he hopes to improve and specific players he expects to contribute this season.
Here is the transcript from Dooley’s interview on Thursday:
COACH DOOLEY: Appreciate you guys coming. As if these three days weren’t painful enough, we added a couple more of us to put a little hot air into it.
Third year, third Media Day. 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. And probably the number one reason for that is for the first time we have a settled roster. Our roster’s in place. We have a full 85 on scholarship, we have 19 starters back, so we have a lot of experience.
I think a microcosm of what we’ve been through, where we were, where we are now, you look at the offensive line. 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. You look at the quarterback position. We went in with a group that hadn’t played one SEC game. Now we got a group that’s played in 20. So that level of experience really gives you a lot of hope.
We’re certainly deeper than we’ve been. It’s so important to be deep and talented because you can’t allow an injury or two that happens to every team decimates your season. We’re certainly more talented in many ways. Actually getting talked about in some of the all SEC pre‑season stuff.
But probably 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, from a leadership standpoint, just a lot more emotional maturity than we’ve had. So this group has been fun to be around.
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.
So 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. It certainly doesn’t mean we’ve arrived, it certainly doesn’t mean we’re where we want to be at every position.
I made the statement to our local media, it’s kind of that song, A little less conversation and a little more action, so we have to go out and prove it, and that’s what we intend to do this year.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll open it up for questions to Coach Dooley.
Q. What is one of the things that you’re most looking to improve on from last season?
COACH DOOLEY: Well, we need to improve on just about everything, because we really weren’t good at anything.
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. Put a big commitment in the spring on improving that area.
I think on defense, of course, I felt like we needed to be a lot more aggressive to impact the game in a positive way. We had some respectable statistics in some areas, but I never felt like we impacted the game from a negative play standpoint, from a turnover standpoint, from a sack standpoint. We’re going to try to be a little more aggressive on defense. Got to run the ball better on offense. We have to play well across the board on the other areas, too. But those have been the two big points of emphasis.
Q. Tiny Richardson is about to be put in a position of enormous responsibility on the O‑line. Where are the areas he progressed quickest and where would you like to see him put in some more improvement between now and September?
COACH DOOLEY: Well, what set Antonio back was he was hurt last year. He came in last season where we felt like he was going to be able to help us was a true freshman, he missed the first six weeks. It’s very difficult on the offensive line to make up that ground that he lost. But he came in this spring and was further along than I anticipated from a knowledge standpoint, from a dependability standpoint.
What Tiny brings is he has incredible energy. He just walks in that huddle and energizes the place. He has great leadership capabilities. So his presence is not only felt in his abilities to block, but it’s also felt in the huddle. So he’s been a good addition for me.
He certainly has a long way to go. He hasn’t been out in the fire. He hasn’t been sitting there on third and eight and have one of the top pass‑rushers in college football coming at him. He’s going to have some growing pains.
He’s not the first freshman we played. We played 32 true freshmen the last two years, so he’s a wily veteran as a sophomore.
Q. What did losing Tyler last year do to the morale of your team? What does it mean to have him back at full strength year?
COACH DOOLEY: Well, I think the cumulative effect‑‑ we lost Herman Lathers before the season, then we lost Justin the third game of the season, Justin Hunter, then we lost Tyler the fifth game of the season. Those were three of our most I guess talented, publicized players. I think it had a bad impact on us. Our spirit was broken.
You know what, as the head coach, that was my responsibility. I probably didn’t do as good a job as I needed to do keeping that together.
I think the important thing is you get a deep and talented football team to where you don’t lose a guy or two and it decimates your season. We had some good teams in our league that lost great players and they didn’t skip a beat. That’s what you’re going to have to do in this league, because you’re going to have injuries.
Did it affect us? Absolutely. Did it affect us a little more than it probably should have? I think that’s fair to say.
Q. Why is Jay Graham a guy you targeted to bring to your staff and how did you get him there?
COACH DOOLEY: When I looked at Jay, the better question is, Why wouldn’t you want him? First of all, he’s a Vol. Has an incredible history as a runner. One of the best of all time in Tennessee. You watch what he did at South Carolina for Coach Spurrier. He did a great job recruiting. He did a great job of developing a young back.
Then when you meet him, just an incredible man. Great character, integrity, fun to be around, good energy. So he’s been a welcomed addition to the staff.
Q. What does it mean for your program to play in a high‑profile game like the Chick‑Fil‑A Classic?
COACH DOOLEY: The first game. Well, it’s why you come to Tennessee. You want to play in these kind of games. It’s a great way to kick off the season. We’re playing an opponent that’s picked to win the ACC by a lot of publications. So it’s going to be a good early measure for our football team to see how much improvement we made in the last seven months.
So it’s going to be a fun thing. I’m looking forward to it. That’s why you come to Tennessee, to play in those kind of games.
Q. Could you talk about the value of Herman Lathers from a leadership standpoint, especially after everything he’s gone through.
COACH DOOLEY: Herman is such a great presence for our football team for a lot of reasons. Obviously he has a great story. When he was younger, the cancer he fought and went through. Then he gets what he thinks is his senior year ruined last year by getting hurt. But not just overcoming those injuries, it’s the level of commitment that he showed to be the best player he could be, and also be a great team leader. He’s extremely committed to having a great season, but also this team to have a great season. That has permeated throughout the team.
I think guys like Herman, they have an ability to affect others and create more leadership on the team. We’re glad to have him. I hope he stays healthy for us. I’m looking forward to having him have a big year.
Q. You’re receiving group is supposed to be probably one of the best groups in the country. Do you see what Tyler, the passing game, kind of carrying you early on, then establishing the running game, in that order?
COACH DOOLEY: Let me address that a couple ways. First the receiving core. It’s getting a lot of publicity. That’s a good thing. Means we have some talent there. We really only have one guy that’s gone through 12 games and been productive in the league. So we have a lot to prove. Justin flashing great things for us, but he only played three games. All the other guys are new. We have some ability, but we haven’t really proven we can do it. That’s what we are set out to do.
As far as whether the pass sets up the run, the run sets up the pass, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is you’re able to do both when you wanted to do both. Everybody does it differently. We have to figure out what works for us.
Q. I talked to Coach Gene Stallings yesterday about the four‑team playoff. He’s not in favor of it. I wanted to get your thoughts on maybe how it should be structured. Have you talked to your father about that?
COACH DOOLEY: It’s interesting you say that because he was pushing a plus‑one 20 years ago. We don’t call it a plus‑one, but it’s one more game.
I think it has taken all the good things that we’ve done with the BCS, and there’s been some great things. It gets beat on, but there’s been some matchups that we never would have seen the last 15 years. Done that extra step to really polish up some of the challenges we’ve been facing.
I commend the leadership of our conferences, the BCS, to making that step. So I think it’s going to be a healthy thing for college football. Of course, the biggest thing I always worry about, because I grew up in this league, is the fans. It makes it at little more challenging. If you’re a Tennessee fan, any of the other fans, you got the SEC game, the semi, the national, that’s your biggest concern.
With all this expansion stuff, everything that’s going on, how do we help the fans, you know. I mean, there’s a lot of talk about the nine‑game deal, which I’ve been for because, again, that familiarity, the fans. We don’t want to lose what made this game special, we don’t want to lose what makes this league special.
Q. What have you seen from Tyler Bray? What kind of off‑the‑field stuff has he done to improve as a quarterback?
COACH DOOLEY: I think just his investment in being good off the field. A lot of things go into that. It’s how you work when you come to the facility, whether it’s how you’re training in the weight room, going out there and throwing with the wideouts, the film study you’re doing by yourself. It’s also your leadership when you’re here. How much are you affecting the other guys on the team to put in the kind of work you’re putting in.
I think that was something Tyler wasn’t real comfortable with as a young player, of getting the other guys and making a difference in their lives.
Of course, the third thing is sort of a lifestyle change. You have to live as the quarterback at Tennessee. If your lifestyle is not reflecting that, then it’s going to be hard to go out and perform to your best.
I’ve seen a real change in his maturity level. I’m hoping he continues on that path and I’m hoping it will net him some big results this fall.
Q. Talking about the receivers, the new ones, Drae Bowles, what kind of role do you see him playing?
COACH DOOLEY: We don’t know. A lot of these freshmen, we haven’t had a chance to get down there and put our hands on them, see them move, watch what their strengths are, what they don’t bring. Drae has a lot of ability, good character, good size and speed. We’ll see where he fits in. So we’re not sure right now.
Appreciate you guys.
Courtesy SEC Sports