UT to rely on youthful experience in pursuit of former glory

Monday, August 1, 2011 at 10:23pm

With college football teams set to open preseason camps in the coming days, The City Paper looks at programs of significant local interest.

Tuesday — Tennessee; Wednesday — Vanderbilt; Thursday — Tennessee State; Friday — Middle Tennessee State

TENNESSEE (6-7, 3-5 SEC in 2010)

Last year, Derek Dooley turned to a bevy of seniors to guide him through his first season as coach.

This fall, he’ll lean heavily on a youthful bunch that includes 26 incoming freshmen. He has 13 players back who started in at least five games but six are sophomores. Nine return for the offense, which is expected to be led in the backfield by sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray and senior running back Tauren Poole. Defensively, the secondary is crowded, with junior safety Janzen Jackson (five interceptions, 69 tackles) leading the unit.

But the Vols continue to make news away from the field — and not in a good way. Senior linebacker Austin Johnson was arrested last weekend for public intoxication and disorderly conduct. Dooley said the issue would be handled internally and Johnson will practice.

For Dooley, his second season will be a continuance of his goal of establishing “a foundation of core values that define how we compete and how we work together as a team.” Along the way, maybe he’ll pick up a defining win as the Vols beat just one team (Kentucky) that went to a bowl last season.

• One to watch (offense): Tauren Poole, running back. The senior from Toccoa, Ga., carried the ball 204 times a year ago — exactly half of the Vols’ 408 rushes. In his first year as the team’s full-time starter, he rushed for 1,084 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’ll once again be crucial to the offense as opposing teams will focus on shutting down Poole early and often while quarterback Tyler Bray assumedly jumps into his first full season as the starting quarterback.

At 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds, Poole has the speed and strength to break away for big yards in big-time games. He proved that last year with six 100-yard games, which included 162 against national champion runner-up Oregon.

• One to watch (defense): Malik Jackson, defensive tackle. The 6-foot-5, 270-pounder from California anchors a defense that returns just four starters. Jackson, who was a preseason media selection to the All-SEC First Team defense, had 48 tackles — 11 for loss — and five sacks in 2010.

He leads a unit that gave up 382.2 yards a game, which was 10th worst in the SEC. That included 152.5 rushing yards a game. Thus, Jackson’s big frame is pivotal for the Vols to slow the ground game and sack the quarterback.

• 2010 in review: Failing to play two complete halves doomed the Vols. They were in games against Oregon and Florida at halftime before fatigue, a big play or more talent allowed the game to get away. They also sputtered at quarterback for a majority of the season with Matt Simms under center. But Dooley decided to switch to Bray, a freshman, with just four games left. It paid off as the Vols won four straight and reached the Music City Bowl before losing in heartbreaking and wild fashion to North Carolina.

• Quote of note: “We know we're young. We know we aren't going to use that as an excuse for failure. We have some guys who flashed a lot of good things last year but nobody really who played 12 games consistently in a championship way. So it’s time to quit talking, get on the field and see what we can develop here the next few weeks before kickoff." — Dooley.

Key dates
Sept. 17 at Florida: The SEC opener will give Tennessee a good idea of where it stands as it faces a youthful but very talented Gators squad. 

Oct. 15 vs. LSU: The Vols look for redemption after a too-many-men-on-the-field penalty kept them from leaving Baton Rouge last year with Dooley’s signature win as head coach.

Nov. 26 at Kentucky: UT will try to extend its 26-game winning streak against Kentucky — and possibly clinch a bowl bid — in its season finale.