by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

It has not been the easiest past few years in Knoxville, as no one would mistake the recent UT gridiron product with those in the many glory eras of Volunteer football. Indeed, last season marked the third in a row with a different coach, quite a departure for a school that had gone the previous 32 seasons with just two mentors (Johnny Majors and Phil Fulmer). But the uncomfortable conclusion to the Fulmer regime in 2008, followed by Lane Kiffin’s quick pit stop in 2009, and Derek Dooley’s appointment a year ago has underlined one of the most unsettled periods in the history of Tennessee football.

How bad has it been? The Vols are just 18-20 over the last three seasons, worse than Kentucky’s record (20-19) over the same span, marking the first time the Wildcats have posted a better three-year mark than the Vols since Fran Curci’s days at UK in the late ‘70s, and only the second time since Bear Bryant’s tenure in Lexington concluded in the early ‘50s. It’s enough to make “The General,” Bob Neyland, roll over in his grave.

And more than a few SEC observers are wondering if UT might be just beginning an extended period of decline, much as Alabama experienced for a decade-long spell between the regimes of Gene Stallings and Nick Saban. The Vols have often been dependent upon out-of-state recruits from Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama, both in the old days and under Majors and Fulmer, while occasionally poaching some stars from the north like Mike Lucci (Pennsylvania), Jack Reynolds (Ohio), and Bob Johnson (Indiana), among others. But with Steve Spurrier effectively closing the border in South Carolina, Mark Richt doing the same in Georgia, and Nick Saban and Gene Chizik following suit in Alabama, access to some of those old Vol fishing waters is limited these days. And some in the region believe that in-state Vanderbilt’s dynamic new HC, James Franklin, might steal a few recruits from UT, which he has already done in his first trip around the track as the Commodore coach. Moreover, there is a self-imposed probation within the entire Vol athletic department relating mostly to transgressions made during the Kiffin (football) and Bruce Pearl (basketball) regimes, although the punishments are rather minor. Still, Dooley is working under a zero-tolerance work environment due to stains upon the program before he arrived.

We suspect, however, that things might not be as bad as some believe with Dooley, who was a bit of a surprise hire after Kiffin’s abrupt departure to Southern Cal in January, 2010. It is no secret that Dooley, son of legendary Georgia HC Vince Dooley and head coach at La Tech for three years before moving to Knoxville, was not the UT’s first choice, which was apparently Air Force HC Troy Calhoun. Dooley might not have been the second choice, either, and more than a few Vol fans wonder if he has the sort of chops to handle the SEC. Results were mixed during his first season, when UT rallied late with a 4-game win streak (and a five-game cover streak) to close the regular season to become bowl-eligible before giving away the Music City Bowl to North Carolina. Combined with a hard-to-stomach last-second loss at LSU earlier in the year, the Vols probably should have finished better than 6-7.

And no one has to tell Dooley that UT boosters and administrators are not going to sit idly by if their team makes a habit of .500-type finishes and minor bowls. The program had not exactly slid into a period of mediocrity when Fulmer was forced out (Fulmer’s 2007 team, a year before his ouster, won 10 games and beat Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl), nor had it when Majors was not-so-gently moved aside in favor of Fulmer 16 years earlier. Majors’ predecessor Bill Battle, only 28 when he took the UT job in 1970, went 59-22-2 in seven years and never recorded a losing record, but was shoved aside when his last two teams failed to reach a bowl game. None of that is lost upon Dooley, who realizes any honeymoon he might have had with Vol backers ended about midway through last season, when UT was floundering at 2-6 before catching a tailwind in November.

There is room for optimism, however, especially since the catalyst of last season’s late charge, 6'6 soph QB Tyler Bray, returns full of confidence after blossoming as an on-field leader in the last half of his frosh campaign. Dooley and o.c. Jim Chaney threw plenty of freshmen to the wolves last season, including Bray, one of many whose progress to a finished product was likely accelerated during last year’s on-the-job training. Taking over in November, Bray (who physically, and style-wise, reminds of former Cincinnati QB Tony Pike) fired an impressive 18 TDP in six starts and led a pair of 50-point explosions vs. Memphis and Ole Miss. A gunslinger, Bray emerged as a better option than Matt Simms, the former juco and early-season starter who remains on the roster as an experienced backup. The offensive line, also full of frosh last season, similarly began to jell later in the campaign. Everyone is back (four sophs and a junior) up front, and expect upgrades in run blocking (where UT finished a poor 105th nationally last season) and in protecting Bray after allowing a whopping 41 sacks to rank a ghastly 115th in that all-important category last fall. There is also some real beef along the forward wall with all starters topping the scales at over three bills, and the right side of the line is capable of blocking out the sun with 6'6, 324-lb. T Ja’Wuan James and 6'5, 330-lb. G Zach Fulton (don’t get stuck between those two in the buffet line).

Dooley’s rebuild theme is further amplified by the fact there is just one senior starter, RB Tauren Poole, on the strike force. And 2010 was also a breakthrough campaign for the 5'10, 210-lb. Poole, kept under wraps by previous regimes but exploding for 1034 YR and 11 TDs a year ago. Keep in mind that the Vol ground game was not quite as anemic a season ago as its 105th ranking would indicate, as the 41 sacks subtracted a lot of yardage from the total. And the infantry likely upgrades this year with more maturity up front and a little more depth to relieve the workhorse Poole; watch soph Rajion Neal, a decorated prep who impressed in limited work with 46 carries last fall, and likely to make a bigger impression in 2011, including occasional isolation looks in a receiver’s role as Chaney seeks to get him the ball in some open space. The receiving corps is mostly-new but not without credentials after making an impression in supporting roles last season. SEC sources believe electric 6'3 soph Da’Rick Rogers could be ready to explode after a highlight-reel performance in spring, and speedy 6'4 soph Justin Hunter hinted at homerun ability last fall when gaining a whopping 25.9 yards per catch, with an astounding Bucky Pope-like seven TDs (!) on his 16 grabs.

While we expect the Bray-led offense to produce some fireworks, we do not have similar confidence in a defense that also fed a handful of frosh to the lions last year for d.c. Justin Wilcox, formerly of Boise State, who was making subtle adjustments from the Tampa-2 looks employed by predecessor d.c. Monte Kiffin in 2009. Unfortunately, jr. FS Janzen Jackson, a problem child from the Kiffin regime, has been dismissed from the program after leaving campus for personal reasons in the winter. The mere presence of the big-hitting Jackson would have mad the secondary the strength of the platoon. Now, focus shifts to soph SS Brent Brewer, who started the last six games of 2010 and displays the sort of maturity you’d expect after spending four years in the Milwaukee Brewers farm system. Jackson's dismissal likely forces versatile jr. Prentiss Waggner back to FS after he was penciled in at RCB, where he performed with some flair last season and was expected to remain pending Jackson's return, which has not materialized. Jackson's loss could be felt in the secondary.

It’s issues along the front seven, however, that are of more concern to Dooley and Wilcox, who spent much of spring mixing and matching, experimenting with MLB Austin Jackson on the outside and DE Corey Miller at a tackle spot. True frosh are expected to provide some immediate help at the LB spots; watch newcomers A.J. Johnson and Christian Harris. Up front, 305-lb. juco bruiser Maurice Couch could emerge in a potential dynamite tackle combo with sr. Malik Jackson, an all-SEC pick last year. Smallish DE Jacques Smith and Willie Bohannon, however, must generate a more-consistent pass rush for the stop unit to qualify for the disruptive category.

Spread-wise, it’s interesting that Dooley’s teams at La Tech and UT have closed fast the past two years, covering their last five regular-season games on both occasions. Also note the recent “over” trend (17-7-1) for the Vols the past two years for Kiffin and Dooley.

Summary...We saw a different Tennessee down the stretch last season and suspect that positive momentum could continue into this fall if QB Bray continues his ascent. The offense could be dynamic in 2011 and 2012 (only one sr., RB Poole, projects as a starter this season), but UT’s bid for SEC honors this fall will likely rely upon its defense making upgrades from a year ago, and FS Janzen Jackson's dismissal could pose problems. Still, we do not consider it a far-fetched notion that the Vols could emerge as a serious contender in their half of the rugged loop, considering that Georgia and Florida have their own questions and Steve Spurrier’s faith in QB Stephen Garcia at South Carolina could go cold at any moment. The schedule (modest non-conference foes Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Middle Tennessee all visit Neyland Stadium, as does Vanderbilt in late November) almost guarantees bowl eligibility, which should be regarded as a minimum expectation. UT is capable of more, but for the moment let’s just call the Vols the X-factor in this year’s SEC race.

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