Tennessee goes young and finds plenty of Volunteers

2011-09-01T07:00:00Z 2011-09-01T07:09:08Z Tennessee goes young and finds plenty of VolunteersBy FRITZ NEIGHBOR of the Missoulian missoulian.com
September 01, 2011 7:00 am  • 

The first thing you notice about the Tennessee Volunteers is their youth.

Well OK, there's that orange - that tends to jump out at you - but the Vols are young.

"If you look at our starting lineup I think we have seven players who are juniors and seniors," Derek Dooley, in his second season coaching at Tennessee, said Wednesday. "That's going to be our challenge - can they go out and play fast, because we don't have the most experience."

You can probably bet on fast because Dooley, the son of legendary Georgia Bulldogs coach Vince Dooley, played 16 true freshmen in 2010. The Vols went 6-7, including a loss to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl.

Many of those freshmen will start as sophomores Saturday against the Montana Grizzlies.

It may or may not be a testament to former coach Lane Kiffin's short stay in Knoxville, but the team has had a makeover. Three true freshmen will start on defense against UM - outside linebackers Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson and corner Justin Coleman.

We should also note Dooley's staff moved a couple veterans around and had it pay off large: Malik Jackson moved to defensive tackle from end and became a force, and a year after moving over from fullback, 240-pound Austin Johnson is starting at middle linebacker.

"It was more of an opportunity to get on the field and do some things he did in high school," said Johnson's position coach, Peter Sirmon. "Last season he did a great job of improving every day. He's become one of the senior leaders on defense, and really sets a good example with his play and his work ethic."

Another holdover who came into his own is Tauren Poole, who ran for 1,034 yards as a junior. Poole is the latest of several standout tailbacks at Tennessee, a list that includes Montario Hardesty, Arian Foster, Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry.

Before last season Poole had 32 career carries. Last fall he had six 100-yard games.

The Volunteers finished with a flourish in 2010, going 4-0 in November before the bowl loss. Tyler Bray came off the bench to set freshman school records for passing yards (1,845) and touchdowns (18).

The quarterback has great targets like 6-foot-3, 254-pound tight end Mychal Rivera, who started his career at Oregon while UM coach Robin Pflugrad was on the Ducks' staff, as well as sophomore flankers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers.

Hunter, 6-2 and 200, averaged 25.9 yards on 16 catches. He scored seven touchdowns.

Bray took over for Matt Simms - son of NFL great Phil Simms - late last season and got hot while Tennessee entered a softer part of its schedule. The Vols beat Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to become bowl-eligible.

Bray finished with four 300 games, the most for a Tennessee QB since Peyton Manning had nine in 1997. But Dooley isn't quite ready to nominate Bray to host Saturday Night Live.

"It takes a lot of time, but I have been very pleased with the development he's had from the end of our last game until right now," said Dooley.

There are concerns. Defensive back Janzen Jackson, one of the top performers from a year ago, left the program last week. As good as Poole was in 2010, Tennessee ranked near the bottom of the SEC in rushing yards.

Poole thinks that will change.

"It's a lot different from last year," he said of his linemen. "They're fitting well, they're moving fast, they're communicating and showing a lot of maturity. They just told me to run, and that's all I needed to hear."

Running hard and well seems to translate to wins in the SEC, where Tennessee went 3-5 last fall.

"There's no way to win a championship in the Southeastern Conference without being a tough, physical football team," Dooley said. "We hit a lot in practice."

Tennessee won a national title in 1998 under Philip Fulmer, who was let go as the program faltered from 2005-08. Now, after one 7-6 season with the unpopular Kiffin, Dooley seems to have things building.

Growing pains be danged.

"Youth can't come into play," said Poole. "The game's going to be here no matter how old or young we are. It starts with leadership, and lot guys came out here focused and ready to go."

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247 or at fneighbor@missoulian.com.


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