As much as anything, Derek Dooley's brand of folksy, self-deprecating humor has defined his term in Knoxville thus far. From Rommel to shower discipline, his Year Zero to a pair of bizarre and crushing last-second defeats in 2010, even calling in a kicker from the frat house, his struggles and misfortune are more notable than nearly anything else that has happened over the past two years.
That side of Dooley seems to have disappeared. He even cancelled last night's practice, remarking, "When Smokey's been hunting the way you want him to hunt, you throw that dog a bone." That quote comes after saying at SEC Media Days that his team could go four quarters with anyone in the league. As someone who's had to play both LSU and Alabama over the past two seasons plus Arkansas a year ago, he knows exactly what that means.
Is this some kind of coachspeak from Dooley with a hidden meaning? It's possible, but usually coaches get down on their teams in fall camp as a motivation ploy. You know, how many times have you heard a coach say he's worried about beating the Sun Belt sacrifice staring him down in Week 1? Dooley himself has gotten down on his team plenty of times, so this sunny speaking is a definite departure from his norm.
We know the passing attack should be prolific, as long as injuries aren't a problem like last year when Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter missed significant time. A passing attack alone does not a conference contender make, however. Of particular concern is whether the team can run the ball well. The Vols haven't been in the top half of the league in rushing yards per game, adjusted for sacks or no, since 2004. They were dead last by a healthy margin a year ago. OC Jim Chaney thinks the attack will be improved, but that's not necessarily saying a lot when the team rushed for under 100 yards per game.
The big transition on defense from 4-3 to 3-4 is a big question mark too. The switch has a chance to go better than Alabama's transition in 2007 thanks to having more players for it, and Sal Sunseri's pedigree has meant that he has instant credibility. With guys like Herman Lathers, Prentiss Waggner, and A.J. Johnson, UT has some nice looking players on that side of the ball. It's still too early yet to judge how the change will go this fall; in fact, it's unlikely to follow a nice, linear progression anyway.
In any event, it seems a bit strange to hear all of the upbeat talk coming out of the Tennessee program. I don't think expectations have been this high since before we knew precisely who Dave Clawson was. That its coming from Dooley, who normally poormouths his team, is even more jarring. I've called Tennessee the biggest wild card in the conference, as there's a lot of distance between its high ceiling and low floor. It sounds like, at the least, Tennessee's coaches are with me on the ceiling part.