Vols to learn more about their identity in October
Beth Rucker Associated Press
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The month of October and the top-notch Southeastern Conference opponents it brings should finally give Tennessee a better picture of what its identity is.
Volunteers coach Derek Dooley wants it to be very clear, though: He's looking from improvement from his players one game at a time and isn't concerned at the moment with any game beyond Saturday's meeting with Georgia.
"I told the team this: We're not playing October," Dooley said Monday. "I've heard more people say, 'The next four games,' 'October,' and I'm thinking to myself, we're playing Georgia, and that's it. It doesn't matter who we played last week or who we play next week."
The Vols (3-1, 0-1) don't have a real good feel for what they can do against the SEC just yet. They've handily beaten the three nonconference opponents they've faced so far but lost by 10 points at Florida in their lone conference game, one that included the loss of top wide receiver Justin Hunter to a torn ACL.
With 16 freshmen seeing playing time this season, there's just not enough "body of work" for Dooley to have a sense of his team's identity, and the coach doesn't like to judge players too quickly.
"I don't know who we are really yet and only time will tell, and this will be kind of the next step," he said.
After facing Georgia (3-2, 2-1), the Vols host No. 1 LSU next week before traveling to No. 2 Alabama and finishing up the month at home against South Carolina.
"We can't worry about the South Carolinas and the Alabamas and the LSUs. This week we've just got Georgia," senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "We're going to take it as a one-game season. We're not dwelling on October. We're dwelling on Georgia."
Dooley wants his offense to be more of a physical running team while continuing to rely on the solid passing game that's been the hallmark of Tennessee's wins this season.
The Vols averaged just 81.7 yards rushing through their first three games but picked up the pace in a 41-10 victory against Buffalo on Saturday. Senior Tauren Poole lead the way with 101 yards on 17 carriers, and the team finished with 199 yards on the ground.
Dooley knows that doesn't mean the Vols will have enough speed to be successful against a strong defense like Georgia's, which is limiting opponents to an average 107 yards rushing.
"We'll find out. I know we did (have enough speed) against Buffalo; I know we didn't against Florida. You've got two games there to measure it on," he said.
The passing attack showed no signs of letting up against Buffalo, with Tyler Bray finishing with four touchdowns and 342 yards, and Da'Rick Rogers catching seven passes for two touchdowns and a career-high 180 yards. Bray's 14 touchdowns and 1,328 yards passing through the first four games are the most by any Vols quarterback.
The success in the passing game has helped Tennessee convert 62.1 percent of its third-down chances, which leads the NCAA.
"There is no question that's the reason we've had success on third down the way we have is because of (Bray's) accuracy," Dooley said. "It makes it really easy. He's got a catchable ball, puts it where the defenders aren't, and that's the sign of a good quarterback. There have not been many good quarterbacks who aren't accurate like that."
Dooley wants the defense and special teams to get rid of the mental errors that have led to a few costly plays by opponents. Most of those mistakes have come from young players, who just need to focus on playing as hard and as fast as possible rather than what the offense is throwing at them.
"Most of the time we're playing 70 snaps a game and we give up three plays where we're not all focused in mentally, we're not all there effort-wise and then you see what happens: it turns into points for them," sophomore defensive tackle Daniel Hood said. "To me we've just got to keep that mental focus through the whole game. I think if we could get that mental focus for 60 minutes, we're going to be a heck of a team."