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Dooley’s Biggest Failure Still Affecting Vols

By Matt Smith
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Butch Jones’ vision to get Tennessee back to the top seems sound. But he hasn’t yet washed the program’s hands clean of Derek Dooley’s biggest failure.

Technically, Derek Dooley’s tenure at the head of the Tennessee football program lasted only three years. After a 15-21 record, supporters of the Big Orange had seen enough, and Dooley was dismissed with one game remaining in the 2012 season.

That was 14 months ago. New head coach Butch Jones’ first season was on par with Dooley, as the Volunteers lost seven games for the fifth time in six seasons. But Jones’ success on the recruiting trail has delivered a sense of optimism about the program that was never present during Dooley’s reign.

Tennessee already has 14 mid-year signees enrolled for the spring semester, highlighted by five-star running back Jalen Hurd. It is expected to sign as many as 21 more prospects on next Wednesday’s National Signing Day, completing a class ranked in the top five nationally by most major recruiting reporting outlets.

The future on Rocky Top looks bright. The present? Not so much. Most of Tennessee’s two-deep is still made up of Dooley’s recruits. Some of those players, such as senior linebacker A.J. Johnson and junior safety Brian Randolph, are among the best in the SEC at their positions. While not at the level of Alabama or LSU, Dooley recruited enough talent to be competitive in the SEC.

Then, there’s the offensive line.

The Volunteers started four seniors and one junior last season. With All-SEC left tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson having declared for the NFL Draft after last season, Tennessee will be without a single returning starter when the 2014 season kicks off Aug. 30 in Neyland Stadium against Utah State.

Richardson was the most notable offensive line signee of the Dooley era. He also landed now-departed James Stone just after taking over in 2010 despite the Volunteers not being a major player in Stone’s recruitment prior to Lane Kiffin leaving for USC less than a month before National Signing Day.

Other than Richardson and Stone, Dooley’s offensive line recruiting was a major failure that will have its most significant impact on the Tennessee program this fall. The 2012 class – currently redshirt sophomores or juniors – was devoid of a single offensive line signee. For a position that makes up 23 percent of your starting lineup, that’s a problem.

When Dooley was fired in November 2012, he had only two commitments from offensive linemen in the 2013 class. The Vols ended up signing three in the class after Jones flipped Cincinnati’s Dylan Weisman, who had been committed to Jones while he was at Cincinnati, a month after taking over at Tennessee.

Redshirt junior Marcus Jackson, who started five games as a freshman in 2011, is the lone Volunteer offensive lineman with starting experience. Weisman and two 2011 signees, Mack Crowder and Kyle Kerbyson, saw limited snaps in 2013. That’s it for game experience.

There are walk-ons, but they’re simply bodies. Junior college transfer Dontavius Blair is already penciled in a starter at one of the tackle spots. Blair has SEC talent and should be a valuable part of the 2014 Volunteers, but the fact that he can come in and almost immediately be tabbed a starter is the bigger issue.

In addition to Blair, two other offensive line signees enrolled earlier this month, and one more is expected to sign Wednesday. In a class that could approach 35 total signees, landing just four offensive linemen (assuming 358-pound commit Charles Mosley stays on defense) is missing the mark again.

A class with four offensive line signees is generally considered an average haul. But when the previous two classes produced three signees combined, the 2014 group still leaves the Vols’ offensive line depth chart with major concerns.

Tennessee fans have been yearning for the days when the Volunteers were an annual SEC title contender. Jones’ vision to get them there seems sound. But he hasn’t yet washed the program’s hands clean of Dooley’s biggest failure.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.