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Tennessee hoping to make noise in SEC with 17 returning starters

Thursday, July 19, 2012 | 8:18 p.m. CDT; updated 10:04 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 19, 2012

HOOVER, Ala. — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley believes his team has improved substantially after suffering through back-to-back mediocre seasons.

He also knows that talking about improvement isn't good enough anymore.

"It's kind of like that song — a little less conversation and a little more action," Dooley said. "So we have to go out and prove it, and that's what we intend to do this year."

The third-year coach said Thursday at the Southeastern Conference media days he feels better about his team this season than at any point during his tenure.

The Volunteers have an 11-14 record over the past two seasons, including a 4-12 mark in the SEC. Dooley says that should improve thanks to a stabilized roster, a healthy quarterback and 17 returning starters.

It has been reported that Dooley needs to have a good season to keep his job. But quarterback Tyler Bray said the criticism of his coach is unwarranted and should be directed toward the playing field.

"I don't think he's on the hot seat," Bray said. "I think the team's on the hot seat. The team hasn't executed the game plan the way we should have."

Bray's development will probably be a large determining factor about Dooley's job status. The 6-foot-6, 213-pound junior from Kingsburg, Calif., was one of the SEC's best passers last season before a fractured thumb on his throwing hand sidelined him five games. He threw for 1,983 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Bray also has talented receivers around him

Da'Rick Rogers led the SEC with 67 catches for 1,040 yards last season. Justin Hunter also returns to the Volunteers after missing most of last season because of a torn ACL in his left knee. He had 17 catches for 314 yards in just three games.

Dooley said the team's "spirit was broken" last season after the rash of injuries to important players. He was disappointed the team wasn't able to bounce back and hopes added depth will keep that from being a problem again.

"We had some good teams in our league that lost great players, and they didn't skip a beat," Dooley said. "That's what you're going to have to do in this league, because you're going to have injuries."

Though the return of Bray and Hunter should be a huge boost for the offense, Dooley's concerns range all over the field. Tennessee had the worst rushing offense in the SEC last season and ranked just 9th in scoring defense.

"We need to improve on just about everything, because we really weren't good at anything," Dooley said.

One thing helping the Volunteers is there's no clear favorite in the SEC Eastern Division. Georgia, South Carolina and Florida are generally considered the best teams, but Tennessee's players see an opportunity to rise back to prominence.

"We haven't had the seasons Tennessee's had in the past, but we're going to try to change that," Bray said. "We have great leadership this year, a good offense and a good defense."


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