Derek Dooley and James Franklin both walked into less-than-ideal situations. Each is using his own approach to turn his program around.
Fewer than two years ago, Dooley took over a Tennessee team that was making more headlines for what was going on off the field. Franklin is in his first season at Vanderbilt — a program that has reached just one bowl in the last 29 years and is coming off consecutive 2-10 seasons.
For Dooley and the Vols, it is baptism by fire, playing many young faces. Franklin, on the other hand, has stuck with recruits from the previous regime, leaning on upperclassmen.
“All I know is you work with the hand you’re dealt,” Franklin said. “You make the best of it and then you try to work extremely hard in recruiting and developing your players that you can have depth and you can have veteran leadership across your program. Obviously, the longer you’re at a place the better you have a chance to do that.”
There's a striking difference in the results as the two teams prepare meet at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU) in Knoxville.
For the second straight season, Tennessee (4-6, 0-6 SEC) has played 16 true freshmen, which is the third-highest total in the nation. In a 49-7 loss to Arkansas last week, six started, which is believed to be a school record. Their top passer, rusher and the top six tacklers in the game all played high school football a year ago.
Of course, this youth movement isn’t completely by design. Dismissals, suspensions and injuries have forced Dooley to shed some redshirts.
Still, Tennessee made it to the Music City Bowl last December and is two wins away from another postseason berth. Life in the SEC, however, hasn’t been easy. The Vols are 3-9 in the last two years, with their only wins coming against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Ole Miss.
“Our players are still learning everything,” Dooley said. “Many of them are trying to survive week to week, no matter who we play. That’s why we are the way we are right now.”
Franklin’s first signing class was a huge hit, earning praise nationally and ranked as high as 45th by Scout.com. He has refrained from dipping too much into that pool. Only five true freshmen have played, with running back Jerron Seymour the only one seeing extending playing time.
Fifteen of Vanderbilt’s 22 projected starters for Saturday’s game are at least in their junior year. Younger players are still getting opportunities. For example, the team’s top four receivers are redshirt-freshmen and sophomores.
This method seems to work for the Commodores (5-5, 2-5), who can clinch their second bowl berth in four years with a win on Saturday. Also on their side is the fact they are stronger and healthier. Hampered by injuries the last two years, they haven’t dealt with a similar issue this time.
Franklin credits a strength and conditioning program led by Dwight Galt. Practicing smart and tying to limit the injuries before the games has been another key.
Vanderbilt's most recent Wednesday practice, Franklin pointed out, was 21 minutes shorter than the team’s first more than two months ago.
“I just don’t believe, as the season goes on, you should have to stay out as long. You should know how to practice. You should be keeping fresh,” Franklin said. “That is the challenge as a coach is how to get them mentally and physically tough by the way you practice but also get to them to the games. I think we all struggle with that. Like [senior linebacker] Chris Marve, for example, although you never want to take him off the field, we’ve said we are going to take him out a series of both halves. That is going to help us in the fourth quarter and that is going to help us as the year goes along.”