Very few programs across the country have undergone more turmoil in the past 24 months than the University of Tennessee.
From the ousting of legendary coach Phil Fulmer in late 2008 to the insanity that was the 13-month tenure of Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley takes his place at the captain’s seat of the Volunteer Navy.
If you were to ask Dooley today about how he has enjoyed the job so far, he probably would tell you Sept. 4 can’t get here fast enough.
An unsettled depth chart at most positions aside, during the latter part of last week, a handful of current players were involved in a brawl that resulted in the hospitalization of an off-duty cop at Bar Knoxville.
Darren Myles’ scholarship has already been pulled, and a sophomore has been dismissed from the team for his involvement, with others waiting for Dooley to pass down a similar fate as the details of Thursday night become more plentiful to Dooley and the UT administration.
So yeah, you can bet Dooley is ready to run through the T and get to the sidelines with a win on the line against Tennessee-Martin.
Junior college transfer Matt Simms will enter two-a-days atop the depth chart at quarterback, which could spell disaster for the program that has been lacking stability at the position since Erik Ainge graduated following the 2007 Eastern Division Championship season.
One of Simms’ projected top targets, Da’Rick Rogers, was involved in the Bar Knoxville fight and will serve an indefinite suspension to begin his Volunteer career.
The top two running back options for the Vols a year ago are no longer in Knoxville, with Montario Hardesty trying his luck in the National Football League and Bryce Brown requesting his leave from Tennessee to pursue his career elsewhere.
Tauren Pole and David Oku will be the first two options to receive the handoffs from Simms at the tailback position. Expect these two to be called on often while Simms gets his bearings in the Southeastern Conference.
Luke Stocker is the SEC’s best tight end, and he will be a nice safety outlet for the quarterbacks in Dooley’s preferred pro-style approach on offense. Gerald Jones returns for another year at the receiver position, while Denarius Moore was second on the team a year ago in receptions and led the team with seven touchdown grabs from Jonathan Crompton.
The freshman Rogers will be a huge factor when he is reinstated to the depth chart, and Marsalis Teague had a tremendous freshman campaign that his coaches are hopeful will lead to an explosive sophomore season.
If it wasn’t enough to be green at the quarterback and running back positions, new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will have to start over along the line of scrimmage. Senior Jarrod Shaw will be the leader along the trenches, and he will be manning the right guard spot.
Junior Cody Pope will ensure the snaps go off as planned at center, and the newest members of the first team are redshirt freshman JerQuari Schofield and the highly coveted Ja’Waun James, with the blind side being protected by sophomore Dallas Thomas. Thomas has been Chris Scott’s understudy for three seasons now and will get his shot at the first team for the first time in 2010.
On defense, the key will be replacing several all-world talents, including the do-everything Eric Berry. Myles was a starter when the Vols broke spring practice, and Janzen Jackson brings starting experience (nine games) as a true freshman during Monte Kiffin’s reign as UT defensive coordinator last season.
Art Evans and Eric Gordon are the first two options at the corner positions. Gordon has all the tools and the prep résumé to be one of the SEC’s best DBs for years to come, while Evans started all 13 games a year ago and totaled 39 tackles.
As important as Berry was to the team, Rico McCoy was equally important to a linebacker group that was amongst the league’s best in 2009. Filling the void initially left by McCoy is Herman Lathers, who started five contests as a freshman. Nick Reveiz is the star of the group, a role he relishes. The senior will be on All-SEC preseason and postseason teams, barring injuries.
Along the defensive line, Chris Walker is one of the SEC’s top defensive ends in a season that should see many stars emerge in this spots. Many feel as though Walker is the top player on the UT roster this season.
Marlon Walls heads into a season filled with huge expectations to match his huge frame at the defensive tackle position. Montori Hughes is the first option at the other interior spot, and senior Ben Martin will get first crack at the starting lineup on the opposite end position from Walker.
Tennessee always carries the expectations of championships and is currently in its longest drought between SEC titles. The Vols never shy from the competition either, and this season is no different.
A visit from defending Pac-10 champ Oregon highlights the non-conference slate, and UT will travel to LSU, Georgia, and South Carolina during Dooley’s debut season. Home games against Florida, Alabama, and Ole Miss won’t be picnics either.
Dooley is one of two new coaches in the SEC and, aside from Vanderbilt interim head coach Robbie Caldwell, has one of the toughest jobs nationally in 2010. His pedigree is untouchable, and the 17-20 record he brings from Louisiana Tech is deceiving as to just how great of a job he did running the athletic department and Bulldogs program simultaneously.
This season may not be enough to gauge just how good he will be, but the probability of stability he brings to Rocky Top will be welcomed and embraced in the seasons to come.
If only Sept. 4 could get here faster.
Quick Look: Tennessee 2010
Starters Returning: Offense 4, Defense 7
Key to the Team: Luke Stocker, TE
Most likely to break out: Eric Gordon, CB
Most important game: vs. Florida, Sept. 18
This CSM original content was written by Chris Rushing.