Kevin Cooper feels as though he's back in college again. But that has nothing to do with classes starting at the University of Tennessee.
It's about the difference in the UT football program under first-year head coach Derek Dooley and the previous year under Lane Kiffin, who left the Vols after one season to become the head coach at Southern California.
"It was like a business under (Kiffin)," said UT's senior fullback. "It was run like the NFL.
"Coach Dooley is showing everybody how to do it the right way. He's showing everyone that the only way to be successful is to do it the right way - as opposed to last year when it was do whatever it takes.
"Coach Dooley brings values and morals to the team, which, in turn, creates spirit. It makes the team better in general and gives you an intangible. I feel like doing the right thing all the time is how you build a championship program."
There's another reason Cooper prefers the Dooley approach. He said Kiffin favored certain freshman players over the rest of the team.
"He wasn't like Coach Dooley, who will make (freshmen) work and earn their spots here," he said. "Then, nobody will have a problem with that.
"It's much different this year. There's a lot of freshmen who are talented and will play this year. But they earned it."
Cooper's assessment is surprising for a couple of reasons - (1) There was no apparent dissension on last year's team, which played with great effort for much of the season; (2) I assumed players in general liked the NFL model.
"The one thing we learned is we can't let anything affect us," Cooper said. "The program has gone through a lot of adversity the last two years. But we just learned to work through a lot of negativity."
As for the professional approach, Cooper said, "You can get treated like an NFL player, but you're not getting paid like an NFL player. The older guys will embrace it more than the younger ones. The young guys, they're boys. They're 18 coming in here.
"College should be a transition into the NFL, rather than being the NFL."
Continuing the NFL analogy, I asked if he thought Kiffin's freshmen were treated like first-round draft picks.
"Exactly," he said. "That's exactly how it was.
"If this guy has this name, he's going to play automatically. Some freshmen were treated like first-round draft picks."
Fellow senior Chris Walker didn't agree with Cooper's take.
"I don't think (the freshmen) were getting pushed to the front too fast," he said. "Obviously, Coach Kiffin saw something that they could help our team. As a player, I trusted him. It worked out for us, and the freshmen who played did really well.
"He wanted to give them a shot. And they took the shot and ran with it."
But the final preseason depth chart for 2009 helps substantiate Cooper's criticism. It was as though the two-deep depth chart was a recruiting brochure - designed to attract more elite young players - which wasn't necessarily a bad idea given UT's shortage of talent.
Freshman Mike Edwards was bracketed as a co-starter at one cornerback. Freshman Nu'Keese Richardson was listed as a starter at wide receiver.
Neither player had much of an impact during the season. Edwards had five tackles, and Richardson caught six passes. Both were dismissed from the team for their alleged involvement in what police said was an armed-robbery attempt.
The most glaring listing on the preseason depth chart was at running back, where freshman Bryce Brown, who recently transferred to Kansas State, and fifth-year senior Montario Hardesty were bracketed as co-starters at running back. Hardesty started every game and rushed for 1,345 yards. Brown rushed for 460 yards as a backup.
"When Bryce Brown was named the co-starter, everybody knew that Montario Hardesty was the running back," Cooper said. "They were giving opportunities to people who didn't earn them.
"Kiffin was going to put in his boys that he wanted to see in there, keeping promises. He was going to let them do what he told them he would."
Keep in mind that Cooper didn't lose playing time to any alleged favoritism, so there's no axe-grinding involved here. He started for Kiffin, just as he started for Phillip Fulmer a year earlier.
Now, he's looking forward to ending his UT career as a three-year starter under a coach who has revived the college spirit and a family atmosphere, according to Cooper.
"Coach Kiffin had us competing more against each other and the incoming freshmen," he said. "Coach Dooley has us playing for each other."
John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.