Dooley's disciples

Sal Sunseri

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Moments before Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley took the podium for the start of Sunday's pre-spring practice news conference, a young reporter asked if the new assistants would be speaking, as well.

"No," a veteran reporter smirked. "They'd need a bigger room."

In what might be a program record, Dooley lost more assistants (seven) than starters (four) from last season's squad. Still, the head man believes his new-look staff is going to be a huge asset. Not all of the newcomers know Dooley but most know one another.

"What's helped a lot is there's a lot of prior relationships, and that was important to me," the head man said. "It was really important to me — especially at the defensive coordinator position — that I got somebody that I had worked with, I know what he's about. He knows me, he's been in a program similar to this. That transition has been seamless."

Certainly, the addition of former Alabama linebackers coach Sal Sunseri to oversee the Vol defense is the most critical of the seven hirings. Unlike predecessor Justin Wilcox, who came to UT from Boise State, Sunseri knows SEC football inside-out. Also, he is adding versatility to Tennessee's scheme by incorporating more of the 3-4 system. Moreover, he coached with cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley at Bama last season and is a longtime friend of defensive line coach John Palermo.

Noting that "A lot of the other guys have worked with each other," Dooley added: "The staff dynamic has been great so far, but it doesn't really mean much. This is the easy time."

The negatives of replacing seven of nine assistants in one year are obvious. Continuity and familiarity have been lost. Moreover, Dooley must teach the new aides what he wants and expects before they can teach the players what the head man wants and expects.

There are some positives in having new blood on the staff, however.

"When you go through a couple years like we did (6-7 in 2010, 5-7 in 2011) and you had so much youth and new coaches, there are a lot of emotional scars that go along," Dooley said. "I think that a little new energy can allow a player who might have been immature before to change. A new coach comes in, and there is just a refreshing dynamic that comes from the get-go that you might not have had if you hadn't had to heal all of those wounds."

Although the mass exodus of assistants following the 2011 season created some instability in the coaching offices, that could be offset by the stability in the roster. The Vols return 10 starters on offense, eight on defense, plus both kicking specialists. Dooley estimated that he has 24 players returning who played 300 snaps or more last fall, with nine of them having played 500 snaps or more.

"As much as it looks like it's not in a stable situation, it really is more stable than anytime since I have been here because the roster is stable," Dooley said. "We've finally got guys who are settled in and have a lot of guys who have played a lot of snaps, so there is a lot more maturity, there is a lot more experience, and I think the stability in the roster has really led to a better work environment and better dynamic day to day."

Dooley's quick wit surfaced a couple of times as he discussed all of the staff defections from 2011. Reminded of a Year 1 comment that staff chemistry didn't mean he'd be singing "Kumbaya" with his assistants, the head man quipped: "I probably should've. Maybe they wouldn't have left."

Later, asked if having to hire so many coaches last winter consumed time that might have been better spent in other areas, Dooley deadpanned, "It really didn't hurt us because we didn't go to a bowl, so I had a lot of time."

Quickly turning serious, the head man added: "It is a hard process hiring guys. You never want to hire last minute, and I hope I never have to again."

The hiring of safeties coach Josh Conklin truly was a last-minute move. He left a coordinator position at The Citadel to join the staff earlier this month. He replaces Terry Joseph, who left for Nebraska in late February.

After conceding that hiring an aide so close to the start of spring practice is "difficult," Dooley noted that Conklin's coordinator background is a real plus since he has "sat in that chair to get a little bit of the big picture."

Joseph's departure also cost Tennessee its recruiting coordinator. Darin Hinshaw has assumed that role but the process remains the same.

"We have an institutional way with how we recruit," Dooley said. "Nothing is going to change. Terry (Joseph) didn't define how we did things. That's what I did."

Hinshaw and Jim Chaney are the only assistants returning from 2011, and they are changing positions. After coaching quarterbacks last season, Hinshaw will oversee wide receivers this season. After coordinating the offense without a positional responsibility last fall, Chaney will work with the quarterbacks this fall.

With seven new coaches and both holdovers coaching new areas, every player on Tennessee's roster will have a new position coach this fall. Dooley thinks this could be an advantage for players who are coming off a losing season and seeking a fresh start.

"They're going to walk into their meeting room with a new face, a new personality, and it's a good opportunity for the players to start over from scratch," he said. "They can put away anything that they wish they hadn't done in the past. It doesn't count anymore. You have a fresh new coach in there who you can just kind of start over with.

"I think it's a healthy thing. It doesn't mean that the coaches were bad coaches that left. They were good coaches and they did a good job for us, but sometimes you just need a little change."

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