KNOXVILLE – Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley addressed the speculation about his job status during his typical weekly press conference on Monday.
“[Dave Hart and I] talked very frankly about it,” Dooley said. “He told me he had not made a decision if we go 6-6, despite what all the reports are. Either the sources are wrong or Dave wasn’t being forthright with me and I have no reason to think Dave is not being forthright with me. He is an honest man, he has always been honest with me and I have appreciated how he has handled everything about this. I really have.”
In order to keep that speculation from affecting his squad’s preparation, Dooley met with the players Monday morning before practice.
“I think when you look at all this stuff, yeah I addressed it,” Dooley said. “[The players] are getting banged up on their phone the way my kids are getting banged up on their phone and the way my wife was getting banged up on hers. Everybody was saying I was fired and I didn’t even know it. I’m sitting there working on Vandy and I had already talked to Dave. You have to come home and address all that with your family and then you have to address it in the morning with the team. I addressed it.”
To its credit, the team has not allowed any of the outside talk to alter its mindset as it continues to work toward winning its final two games and earning a bowl bid.
“I think the irony in all this is that we beat up the young kids so bad on their behavior all the time and they are the ones handling all of this better than anybody,” Dooley said. “There is no negativity on the team, there are no mean-spirited comments, there is no gossip, so I am proud of them for doing that. We probably all ought to learn from them a little bit.”
Rather than focusing on issues he can’t control, Dooley’s attention remains squarely on this week’s opponent.
“I’m worried about Vanderbilt and I can’t make that decision,” Dooley said. “I can give you compelling arguments why I should and there are plenty of compelling arguments about why I shouldn’t. It’s not going to be your decision, it’s not going to be a bunch of these source’s decisions, it is Dave [Hart] and the chancellor. It is their decision and I can’t control what they think. We’ve had a lot of good dialogue. I think he has a good handle on how I do things in our program, where we are and why we are not getting the results we want, so you move on and live with it.”
BUSINESS AS USUAL
Despite the media attention on Dooley and team's struggles in recent weeks, the focus of Monday's practice was squarely on preparing for Saturday's game at Vanderbilt.
"Guys want you to break internally, so we stand together inside and just focus on this week," senior linebacker Herman Lathers said.
Dooley and the team refuse to dwell on the quadruple-overtime loss to Missouri.
"He doesn't have too much to say, just the usual that we fought hard, there were some things we could have done better and we have to move on to Vanderbilt and get better," sophomore offensive lineman Antonio Richardson said.
Many of the players have echoed their respect for the way Dooley has been handling the outside pressure that only increased after the loss to Missouri. Like their coach, the Vols are determined to continue working hard and preparing for the next opponent.
"He's handling it as best as you can," sophomore running back Devrin Young said. "He's staying positive. He's not being affected in any way by it. He's focused on us, he's focused on Vanderbilt and we're just going to be ready to play Saturday."
All of the seniors are honed in on these final games of their collegiate careers. With bowl-game eligibility still within their reach, the seniors are focused on making these next few games count.
"These are my last two weeks, so distractions are pretty much the last thing I'm worried about,' senior defensive back Prentiss Waggner said. "I'm just looking forward to going out with a bang and just really having fun these last two weeks."
MATCHING VANDY'S INTENSITY
Although UT has had Vandy's number in recent years, junior offensive lineman James Stone knows that the Vols' offense will have a tough test when it squares off against the Commodores' defense.
"I've watched them play," Stone said. "They have a good defense and they play really hard. That's something that we're going to have to focus on this week - just matching their intensity."
That intensity has carried Vanderbilt to four wins in a row. Vandy held opposing offenses to just 11.5 points per game in that stretch. The Commodores have the fourth-best scoring defense in the SEC 18.0 allowed per game and the league's third-best pass defense (177.0 yards allowed average).
Stone expects another physical game this week as the in-state rivals tend to bring out the best in each other.
"We're in the same state, so there's always going to be a little bad blood there with both teams being from Tennessee," Stone said. "So it's going to be a good rivalry game."
As the Vols wrap up their regular season, they will take on two teams that they have faced more than any other team in school history, Kentucky (107 meetings) and Vanderbilt (104).
First the Vols will take on Vanderbilt for bragging rights in the state of Tennessee, something the Vols have had for six consecutive seasons and 28 of the last 29 years.
"As long as I've been here, Vanderbilt has been a big rivalry," redshirt senior defensive back Prentiss Waggner said. "Ever since I've been here, the game has been really close. I don't necessarily remember a year that we pretty much won by a large amount against Vandy."
Last year, the Vols edged the Commodores as Eric Gordon raced 90 yards down the field returning an interception for a touchdown to give Tennessee a 27-21 victory on the fourth play of overtime.
"There is a lot of stuff going into this week," sophomore and Knoxville native Devrin Young said. "Vanderbilt is obviously going to be ready for us. We got away with one last year. They are a great team. They're a lot different from last year; obviously you can tell by their record. They're going to be ready to play."
Vanderbilt, which became bowl eligible with a come-from-behind, 27-26, victory over Ole Miss last week, will likely come into the game against the Vols with an edge after the way the game ended last year.
"They are bowl eligible and we are not," sophomore Nashville native Antonio Richardson said. "There is most definitely a chip on our shoulder [because of that] and there is a chip on their shoulder to get a `W' against us because I don't think their coach has a win against us since he has been there so I know they want to get the win. We need it more than they do, so we need to go in there and get this win."
GIVING IT ALL FOR THE SENIORS
With two regular-season games left, the Vols need to win out to make their way to a bowl for the 50th time in school history.
After missing out on the postseason last year, getting back to a bowl game is something that the entire team is wanting, and believes it can accomplish.
"We were in a worse position my freshman year when we had to win four straight [to become bowl eligible]," said junior Ja'Wuan James. "So I feel like are capable of getting it done. We have two really good opponents to go against. We start with Vanderbilt and we've just got to have a great week of practice."
Sophomore left tackle Antonio Richardson hasn't been to a bowl during his time on Rocky Top and wants that to change this year, for himself, and for the senior class.
"We have to win to get to a bowl," said Richardson. "These seniors deserve to go to a bowl this year. We have to do what we have to do to get them there. For me personally, I haven't experienced one yet so I would love to go to one. I know the guys in my freshman class haven't been to one and these seniors deserve to go to one so we just have to do it for these seniors."
Redshirt senior Prentiss Waggner has been to three different bowl games donning the Orange and White and would love to win out during the regular season for a chance to get back to the postseason in his final go around at Tennessee.
"It would mean a lot because last year we didn't go to a bowl game," said Waggner. "This year I think the main focus is winning these last two games, winning them one week at a time. We're prepping for Vandy. It's going to be a 60-minute fight. We're going into Nashville, into their home, to try to get a `W.'"
As his time comes to an end at Tennessee, Waggner wants to be able to put in as much hard work as he can, while having a good time with his teammates.
"It really hasn't sunk in," said Waggner. "I think when it hits me; it's going to hit me. I've talked to guys like Herman Lathers, Marsalis Teague and Rod Wilks about it all the time. We're going to have a fun last two weeks of practice and get as much done as we can."
SOPHOMORE OL TINY RICHARDSON
(On the team’s spirits)
“In the offseason that is what we put the emphasis on, staying together as a team. That is what we have done really well, through all of the adversity we have stayed together and that is what we are going to continue to do.”
(On Vanderbilt’s defense)
“I wouldn’t say they are the most talented team, but right now they are playing really good, sound football. Especially on defense. They are ranked about 23rd [in the NCAA] on defense. We can’t overlook them, we have to go in there and play our game.”
(On Vanderbilt’s defensive execution)
“They just execute their defense. They don’t run anything too complex, they just run a little over front and they just do what they do well. I know their linebackers are really good, they have some big guys and they have a really good secondary as well. We have to go in there and see what we can do against them.”
(On the rivalry)
“I think they are going to come in and think they are going to win the game. At the end of the day, they are Vanderbilt, we’re Tennessee and the rivalry is going to be there. We just have to execute our offense, execute our defense and we can win this game.”
RS SENIOR DB PRENTISS WAGGNER
(On all of the chatter surrounding the program)
“I don’t think we buy into things like that, especially for us seniors. We’ve been through, what, three coaches now? That’s basically the last thing we’re thinking about. We’re just thinking about playing these last two games and having fun with it.”
(On if he feels Vandy has a sense of motivation after last year’s game ended the way that it did)
“I think we can expect that because for Vanderbilt-Tennessee, they’re coming into this game thinking that they can beat us and they have all the right to. They’ve been playing great football and we’ve got to play one snap at a time and come out of there with a ‘W.’”
(On if how Coach Dooley has done a good job of keeping the team focused)
“From my point of view, I think he has handled it really well. Today he was out there smiling, cracking jokes with me, Eric Gordon, Byron Moore and all of those guys. I pretty much didn’t see a difference.”
RS SENIOR LB HERMAN LATHERS
(On Monday’s practice)
“It went well. We came out and adjusted to a lot of formations that Vanderbilt is going to give us, so it was a great first day. We just have to build on it tomorrow. It’s the same as all the past weeks. There are a lot of outside distractions but it doesn’t bother our team. We’re a real close knit bunch and we stand together no matter what.”
(On importance of having clarity from Coach Dooley)
“Clarity has been there the whole year. It’s a little more as the season goes on, but we know what’s ahead, what we have to focus on, so we stand prepared.”
(On Curt Maggitt being out for the rest of the season)
“It hurts. Maggitt is a good player, good defensive mind, therefore we have to have guys step up and play along when he’s not there.”
(On Sal Sunseri being in the press box)
“It didn’t impact us. I thought it gave him a chance to see things from a better angle, better play calling, so he called a real good game and we’re happy about that.”
JUNIOR OL JA’WUAN JAMES
(On how difficult it is ignore the negative comments)
“It’s pretty hard. You guys ask us. Our families ask us. We get phone calls from parents and stuff like that. But I feel like we’ve done pretty good job this year and we’re more mature. I feel like we’ve got a lot of mature guys that can handle it now. We just all want to win, bottom line.”
(On if, despite the team’s struggles in SEC play, if the team still finds a way to be motivated)
“We still have a goal of a bowl game out of all of our goals that we wanted to reach. That’s still obtainable, so we just want to go out there and win these next two so we can.”
(On what he takes from last years’ experience to prepare for this year’s game)
“I can’t predict the game. I want to go out there and win by as many points as we can. At this point, we just want to win. Last game, we fought through it I feel like for the first time this season through the fourth quarter and overtime. I feel like if we go out there and play as hard as we can, we’ll get the outcome we want.”
SOPHOMORE TB DEVRIN YOUNG
(On staying healthy)
“I’m good. I’ve been blessed to be kept healthy this year and I have no complaints.”
(On the importance of winning)
“Yes definitely. Whatever side of the stick you’re on, in that game last year, you just know how it felt to win or lose and they are going to be ready, like I said earlier. They’re a better team this year; you can tell by their record. We just have to come with our A game. It’s going to be an intense game. We’re going there and they want to win and so do we, so it’s going to be a good game.”
(On 2011 Vanderbilt game)
“They probably have a huge chip on their shoulder, which what team that is truly competitive wouldn’t? It’s just the nature of the game.”
“One of the biggest things Coach Dooley tells us is to not focus on the things you can’t control. That’s all you can do in a situation like this. Being from here obviously I hear about it as much or maybe more than some of you guys .I’m getting text messages, calls, people on Twitter, every time I turn around I’m hearing something about it, but I’m giving them the same answers I am giving you all and that’s the focus on things that I can control.”
JUNIOR OL JAMES STONE
(On tough it is to deal with all of the chatter around the program this week)
“It hasn’t really changed. It’s just something that you just learn to block out when you come into this complex. When we’re in this complex, we just focus on football and that’s what we’re doing here. When we’re on the practice field or in the complex, we focus on football and preparing for our opponent.”
(On what he’s seen on Vanderbilt)
“I’ve watched them play. They have a good defense and they play really hard. That’s something that we’re going to have to focus on this week – just matching their intensity.”
(On if there’s a sense of urgency to win these last two games)
“It’s very high on this football team. We feel like these are two wins that we have to get. We’re just going to try to prepare our best. I don’t think anybody’s going to go out there and do anything ‘Superman.’ We’re just trying to do our jobs and do it efficiently and do it correctly and go out there and execute so we can win these last two.”
(On the video of Coach Dooley being hoisted in the air from last year – if he thinks Vandy will use that as motivation)
“I feel that any coach would use that to motivate his team. So I wouldn’t be surprised. I already know they’re using that.”
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)