That's why the head coach said following Thursday's practice that he is "not in the desperation mode everybody else is in" because Tennessee posted minus-9 rushing yards in Saturday's 33-23 loss at Florida. The Vols' offensive linemen never got to serve an apprenticeship. They were thrown into the lineup as freshmen last fall and are still getting on-the-job training.
Dooley noted that wideouts Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers got to spend 2010 learning behind seniors Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore. Tight end Mychal Rivera got to learn behind senior Luke Stocker. Defensive end Jacques Smith got to learn behind seniors Chris Walker and Gerald Williams.
"They got experience all year," Dooley noted. "They weren't counted on all year. They learned a lot from the old guys, and now it's their turn. Really, what you want in a program is to have that at every position."
Unlike Hunter, Rogers, Rivera and Smith, the Vols' young offensive linemen have had no such role models to watch and emulate. The closest thing to a veteran in the 2010 blocking front was Jarrod Shaw, a little-used fifth-year senior with just three career starts heading into his final year on campus. Basically, there was no bell cow for the calves to follow.
"You want the young linemen to watch the old linemen," Dooley said. "They go play some, then it's their turn. Then they become the old linemen, and the young ones come in and watch them. You just keep cycling it through because you can learn so much from watching the guys ahead of you."
Despite the poor effort at Florida, the head man disputes the notion that the line has regressed. He says the blockers are much better than a year ago.
"I think they're playing better than they were last year," he said. "I think they're playing significantly better than they were last year. Are they playing the best they're capable of? Absolutely not. But my whole deal is: Are you better today than you were yesterday? That's all I'm worried about."
The coach believes his linemen are making daily improvement, although it may not be noticeable to the average observer.
"It requires patience that doesn't exist in athletics, and I recognize that," Dooley said. "But if I don't have it, then we'll never get to where we need to be."
After defending his offensive line, the head man made clear that he is not making excuses for its poor play last weekend.
"It doesn't mean we're happy with how we're playing. It doesn't mean we lower our standards. But there's a realistic approach of improvement. You want to wave the magic wand and over the summer we're there. But these guys didn't have the benefit of watching veteran linemen. They got thrown in because they were better than what we had, and they were in survival mode for five games."
To underscore the improvement among the blockers, Dooley reminded practice visitors how rarely quarterback Tyler Bray has been hit this fall, after being belted with alarming regularity last season.
"Bray got hit 6,000 times ... 6,000 I think was the count," Dooley deadpanned. "Maybe it was 6,005. He got annihilated in the pocket but we were completing balls down the field and didn't even notice it."
After conceding that his team "didn't run the ball well at all" vs. Montana in Game 1 and vs. Florida in Game 3, Dooley said the ground game was solid in Game 2.
"I thought we really ran it well against Cincinnati," he said. "We had a 100-yard rusher, and I think he averaged over five yards a carry. And we had 500-something yards of offense. We just need to keep building and getting better. We'll do that."
Although senior tailback Tauren Poole and the O-line are taking the brunt of the criticism for the dismal rushing performance at The Swamp, Dooley insists there's plenty of blame to go around.
"It's everybody," he said. "It's the wideouts, too. We missed a lot of perimeter blocks. We don't play very physical on the perimeter."
Ending on a high note
After ripping his team during Tuesday's practice and shunning the media afterward, Dooley says the Vols bounced back with two solid days of work on Wednesday and Thursday.
"We had two good days," the head man said. "We had a good shells practice, moved the field and it was good energy. The defense did a real good job today. It was two good days of work."
Working the pups
As is customary on open-date weeks, Tennessee rested some of its first-teamers and gave some of its youngsters extra repetitions on Thursday.
"There was a lot of reps for the young guys, which was good," Dooley said. "We had some guys who'd gotten a lot of snaps dinged up, so that gave us an opportunity to look at a lot of young guys, especially so many freshmen who we're going to have to count on to play this year. I think that was a good, positive thing. Hopefully, we'll benefit from it."
One veteran Vol who should benefit is Poole. He suffered a back strain in the first quarter of the Florida game and finished with just 18 yards on nine carries.
"He's been a little banged up," Dooley said, "so I hope this week will help him recover and come back ready to go fresh on Monday."
The Vols will not practice Friday, Saturday or Sunday as they rest up before opening preparations for Game 4 vs. Buffalo.