HOOVER, Ala. -- One recent offseason workout had Derek Dooley miffed.
The University of Tennessee's second-year football coach had spoken publicly before about wanting to add banners to the Volunteers' plush indoor practice facility, and his players' workout lacked the sufficiency to move in that direction.
"I explained to them what the expectation is at Tennessee," Dooley said Thursday morning before making the rounds at Southeastern Conference media days, "and the fans expect us to go out there and compete for a championship and get one of those banners. We need to work like that."
Tailback Tauren Poole quickly recalled the day of Dooley's challenge.
"It was like, 'What have you proved? What have you done? Do you see those banners? How do you think they worked and what do you think their work ethic was?'" Poole said. "He said, 'This ain't it.' It humbled us. It showed us that only hard work will get us to the top and we have to work hard because this is a hard league. We really needed to hear it because it brought leaders up and guys spoke up. It changed the way people started to work."
For Dooley, refocusing his team on the singular goal of competing for and winning championships has been a process that really started after last season. Amid the turmoil and instability of three coaching staffs in consecutive years, the winning standard for UT's football program got shuffled off the top spot.
"There's a standard at Tennessee that's always been there, and we lost that standard," Dooley said. "I thought it was very important we turned the page after last season to redefine the standard of excellence that Tennessee has had for so long. You're never going to get there if you don't at least start establishing it."
Most of that lost focus for the players stemmed from another year of adjusting to a new coaching staff.
"When I first got here," said senior defensive lineman Malik Jackson, who transferred last summer from a championship program at Southern Cal, "it was a new coach and everybody was getting used to a new system, so it was hard. It was just a lot of young guys ... who didn't know what to expect."
Said Poole: "I think it was trying to adjust. It's hard as a first-year coach to be overly expecting of [the players] to be great. It's tough, but now that we know what Coach Dooley wants, we're ready to go and we're just ready to try our best to win as many games as we can."
With 57 freshmen and sophomores comprising more than 70 percent of this year's roster, the Vols are even younger than they were a year ago, when more than a dozen true freshmen were key contributors. Dooley admitted there's plenty of unknown about his team having to rely on so many first- and second-year players, but despite the youth he believes the Vols can contend in a wide-open SEC East, where South Carolina, Florida and Georgia are all dealing with flaws of their own.
"I don't go into any year not thinking we can contend," Dooley said. "I think we certainly have some more challenges than some of the other teams. I like the guys that we're coaching. They're going to develop into being something that's going to bring Tennessee back to what its standard was. How quickly that will happen, I can't speak.
"[It] could be false hope. I've been pleased with how they've been working, I feel like that they're confident that we're on the right track, and I've seen improvement in these guys in their attitude and their investment in the program and in their performance from day one. That's all I've ever asked them to do.
"As long as they keep that dynamic going, I'm going to feel good and they're going to be a fun group to coach."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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