Call me a Dool-Aid drinker, but in my opinion it's hard not to feel pretty good about the direction of the football program based on Derek Dooley's off-season hires. Sure, there have been 6 coaches leave for other positions, but considering the Vols were 5 and 7 last year including a loss to Kentucky is that really such a bad thing? Is the staff that lost to Kentucky and beat Vanderbilt in overtime really a staff that Tennessee fans wanted long term? Change was needed and regardless of how that change came about Derek Dooley was given a chance to start fresh in a few key areas. On paper he hit a homerun.
It all started when wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett retired. There was a lot of speculation swirling around Baggett's relationship with Da'Rick Rogers and the role that Derek Dooley played within that dynamic. Ultimately Baggett left. Baggett is an extremely well respected wide receivers coach with lots of great experience both at the collegiate level and in the NFL. This was not a loss that Tennessee fans should be happy about. But let's look at it from Dooley's perspective. If Baggett and Rogers weren't going to get along and that could potentially be detrimental to the 2012 football team, is Baggett's exit really such a big loss? This isn't 1997 when Tennessee fans could side with coaches over players. Back in the day if a wide receiver had a problem with a coach and couldn't get over it then the Vols could easily have parted ways with the player and filled his slot with one of the other NFL caliber wide outs that was playing behind him. Those days are over. If Dooley is going to win in 2012 Da'Rick Rogers is going to have to be an integral part of the offense. There is no way around it. If the choice was to lose Charlie Baggett or lose Da'Rick Rogers then Derek Dooley did what he had to do. He needs Da'Rick Rogers to help him win next season and therefore secure his job beyond 2012.
It has since been announced that former Volunteer running back Jay Graham will replace Baggett. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will coach the quarterbacks, former quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw will coach the receivers in Baggett's absence, and Graham will of course take over the running backs. While Baggett's loss shouldn't be undersold, Graham is a huge addition to this staff. He brings the experience and passion of having played for Tennessee during a time when no one was better. Perhaps more importantly, he brings a great recruiting resume' with him from Steve Spurrier's staff at South Carolina. Derek Dooley has made it clear that Jay Graham is a big part of his plan to revitalize the once great recruiting pipeline to the Carolina's that Tennessee had long enjoyed.
Next to go was Eric Russell who left Knoxville to join Mike Leach's staff at Washington State. Russell worked with Leach at Texas Tech and has roots in the Pacific Northwest. Can't really blame the guy for making the move. Russell was Derek Dooley's special teams coach and led that unit to some nice improvements during 2011 thanks in large part to the addition of Devrin Young. But let's not fool ourselves. Special teams at Tennessee has been bad for a while now. It was bad at the end of the Fulmer era. It was bad under Lane Kiffin. It has been bad under Derek Dooley. This gives Dooley the chance to once again start fresh and whether he brings in someone to give the special teams units new direction or he coaches them himself, there is an opportunity for immediate improvement.
Then the really bad news hit. Justin Wilcox and Peter Sirmon were leaving for Washington. No doubt, this one hurt. Sirmon is becoming one of the top recruiters in college football and Justin Wilcox is considered one of the top young defensive minds in the game. How was Dooley going to replace those guys? How could Tennessee fill those shoes?
In the midst of finding a defensive coordinator to fill Wilcox's spot more news broke out of Knoxville. Harry Hiestand would leave Tennessee to join Brian Kelly at Notre Dame. In almost no time at all Derek Dooley announced that Sam Pittman would replace Hiestand and coach his offensive line. This can only be viewed as a significant upgrade. Pittman has been North Carolina's recruiting ringer under Butch Davis. He has been named as one of the top 25 recruiters in the nation. Furthermore, it seems pretty clear that Dooley was poised to make this move regardless of Hiestand's choice to go to South Bend. While the offensive line was good in pass protection they were atrocious in run blocking. Derek Dooley needed to make a change in that position group and Hiestand being able to go to Notre Dame works out best for all parties involved.
Then the big news. Derek Dooley announced that Sal Sunseri would be leaving Alabama's staff and take over defensive coordinator responsibilities for the Vols. You can read more about Sunseri's past here, but he comes very highly regarded. He was named college football's top recruiter for 2011 and brings experience from both Nick Saban's 3-4 defense and John Fox's 4-3 defense. Before any games are played I feel confident saying that Sal Sunseri was a great hire by Derek Dooley.
But the shuffling wasn't over yet. Sunseri was named on Friday and then on Sunday it was reported that Lance Thompson would leave Dooley's staff to fill the vacancy left by Sunseri on Nick Saban's staff. Lance Thompson is a really good coach and a great recruiter, however Derek Dooley had to consider this scenario as a real possibility before hiring Sunseri. Lance Thompson has twice been passed over by Dooley for the defensive coordinator spot. There were rumors that this might happen regardless of who Dooley hired as DC. Many seem to think the sky is falling because of Thompson's departure, but would Tennessee fans really have prefered Dooley not hire Sunseri and promote Thompson to coordinator just to ensure he didn't leave? The Tennessee football defensive coaching staff improved with the addition of Sunseri regardless of the departure of Thompson.
Football coaches leave every year. It is one of the most volatile industries in America. Turnover will happen and while it is never easy it is often necessary to aid in a program's growth. Tennessee definitely needed to grow and improve. The additions of Jay Graham, Sam Pittman, and Sal Sunseri make this possible. Staying the course with the staff, as it was constructed, was not going to happen regardless. No matter how down the program is at Tennessee you have to make some changes after a 5-7 campaign. Derek Dooley made plenty of changes. I'm not sure why it is perceived by many to be such a bad thing.
To be sure, my opinion is quite possibly in the minority among those who follow Tennessee football. Some have written that Derek Dooley is desperate, other have construed Derek Dooley and Nick Saban's trading of coaches to have some how worked out in Saban's favor (I don't see that). Tennessee has even been called Alabama's JV squad.
The fact of the matter is Derek Dooley has to win a minimum of 8 games in 2012. His current staff couldn't even beat Kentucky. If it takes a major overhaul to get the team to 8+ wins next season then I say Derek Dooley is doing exactly what he needs to to get Tennessee back where it belongs.