Derek Dooley has said a lot of interesting things in his first 14 months as Tennessee's head coach, in an interesting accent. But none of them have been quite as useful as the new addition to the gridiron lexicon he contributed on Monday, on the eve of the Vols' first spring practice:
Of course, "Year Zero" may also describe, among other things, a Nine Inch Nails concept album and accompanying alternate reality game, either of two other albums by lesser-known artists, at least one novel, no fewer than five different songs on still other albums or the beginning of the Cambodian genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Where we're concerned, though, the concept of "Year Zero" is a natural corollary to the two-year plan for turning around wayward behemoths. And if any first-year coach in 2010 deserved to think about his new job in those terms — treading water, getting your footing, survival, etc. — it was Derek Dooley.
Even at the beginning, he was an on-the-fly, fourth-choice hire in late January, better known for his last name than as a sought-after head coach, and immediately required to hold together a recruiting class that was still being wooed by his predecessors. By the end of spring practice, Dooley had presided over the exit of the team's most high-profile player, its only experienced offensive lineman and its only experienced quarterback. By the end of the year, he'd presided over most lopsided home loss in school history, the most bizarre, emotionally wrenching loss of the regular season, double-digit losses at the hands of rivals Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina and the most bizarre, emotionally wrenching loss of the postseason. The offensive line was manned mostly by freshman from early on; by Halloween, the starting quarterback was a true freshman, too. By February, Lane Kiffin's hyped 2009 recruiting class was effectively up in smoke. So far, it's been the coaching equivalent of The Money Pit.
If the prospect of total collapse has faded, though, it's only yielding a new, equally precarious phase of rebuilding: Fully half the Vols' likely starting lineup going into the spring is composed of sophomores, eight of them offense, including the quarterback (Tyler Bray), his top two receivers (Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers) and four-fifths of the offensive line; with six early enrollees in for spring practice, it may add a freshman or two to that number. Dooley estimated Monday that 70 percent of the 2011 roster will be freshmen and sophomores, and if it's not "the youngest team probably in America," it's close enough that "Year One" still figures to look like, well, your standard year one. After the non-stop turmoil of the last two-and-a-half years, I suspect Tennessee will take it. For now.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.