KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee has gotten plenty of attention in the past eight months for off-the-field news. The Volunteers are hoping to prove that none of it will keep them from being successful on the field.
"We know how hard we worked this summer, so I think it's going to be a good time for us to get out there and show everybody how hard we've been working and how dedicated we are to Tennessee," senior defensive end Chris Walker said.
The Vols have been eagerly awaiting Saturday's season opener against Tennessee-Martin because it means the fans' focus will be back on football. All the talk surrounding the Vols from January through August has been about former coach Lane Kiffin's hasty departure from Tennessee — the Vols' second coaching change in as many seasons — and the July bar brawl that led to one player's dismissal and two others' suspensions.
If anything, the program's offseason turmoil has helped foster more team chemistry for the 2010 season, senior linebacker Nick Reveiz said.
"I feel like it's brought us closer as a team," Reveiz said. "We've had so much turnover and change, the only guys we could really look at or rely on were the players ... therefore we bonded closer as a team, and I really feel like we've created a team chemistry."
The coaching turnover and player arrests could have done just the opposite by tearing the team apart, first-year coach Derek Dooley said. But the Vols have shown resiliency after every bit of adversity they've faced in recent years, from following up a 5-7 season and coach Phillip Fulmer's firing in 2008 with a 7-6 season in 2009 to being completely dedicated to fall camp after the embarrassment of the bar brawl.
Dooley's hope is that his players' resiliency will continue to translate to good things on the field.
"I hope that what it does prepare them for is when it gets a little tough out there — which it will — that we stay together and we support each other and we play out of it, just like the kids have done with every little piece of adversity that's hit them in the past couple of years," the coach said.
The Vols didn't immediately warm to Dooley's leadership when he was hired in January, having just been jilted by Kiffin, Reveiz said. But Dooley has earned their respect over the course of the offseason, especially thanks to the way he handled the discipline problems and prepared the team, despite major depth issues.
"He's really taken care of us as far as off-the-field issues and as far as on-the-field issues. He's really been there for us," Reveiz said. "We're going to stay together as a team, and we're going to support coach Dooley."
A number of players opted to leave Tennessee after both Fulmer's firing and Kiffin's departure, leaving only 76 scholarship players on the team after Dooley awarded scholarships to a couple of walk-on players.
Dooley and his players have acknowledged many times that the lack of depth could cause Tennessee to struggle. Still, Reveiz says he wouldn't trade in the team's difficult times of late just to have a full roster.
"It's hard not to say you're not worried, but you realize that you'd rather do it with a smaller group of guys who are doing it the right way than a bigger group of guys that are doing it the wrong way," he said. "I really believe we're doing it the right way as far as off the field and on the field.
"I can make a commitment to the community that we're trying to make Vol nation proud and we're working as hard as we extremely can. I wouldn't trade these guys for anybody."