Another shoe dropped.
This time the cleats will be much harder for Tennessee to fill.
Freshman All-American offensive lineman Aaron Douglas asked new coach Derek Dooley for his release Thursday, joining sophomore running back Bryce Brown as the second high-profile player in a little more than a week to leave the program. And for a team with such a glaring need on the offensive line, the surprising loss of its expected starting left tackle could be a devastating blow.
“Aaron Douglas and I met today, and he’s decided that he no longer is a part of our football team,” Dooley said. “It’s unfortunate that we never got a chance to coach him, but as I’ve told (the media) and I’ve told the team, our concern is not what we don’t have — it’s who we have.
“We have 84 guys who are excited about our program, we’re shaping a new culture, and as we do, this is a process. So that’s the story there.”
It’s virtually the same one UT had to deal with at the start of camp when Dooley had a similar meeting with Brown to discuss his departure, though the impact could be far greater with Douglas.
The converted tight end blossomed at right tackle as a redshirt freshman, moving into the starting lineup, winning an SEC lineman of the week award and playing a critical role for one of the best pass-protection units in the conference. But with a lingering ankle injury and an undisclosed personal issue, the former Maryville High School star hadn’t taken part in any team activities since camp opened last week.
The Douglas family — former UT and NFL offensive lineman David Douglas and former Lady Vols basketball player Karla Horton Douglas — declined comment on the matter publicly and Dooley didn’t give specifics about releasing him other than indicating it won’t be to a team the Vols play. And at this point, a return to the team appears highly unlikely.
“Well, there was a point where we were going to have to have a talk, and certainly we’re always going to support our players when they’re having problems, but there’s also a responsibility that every player has to the team,” Dooley said. “So I think it had reached that point where we needed to sit down and really decide, ‘Which way are we headed here?’ He decided he no longer wants to be a part of the program. He did ask for his release, and we’ll certainly, with conditions, allow him to go to some other places.
“It doesn’t do anything to me, because he was never here. Every decision we’ve made, I mean, I’ve never even seen Aaron jump over a bag. There’s been no change as far as what we’re coaching and the personnel decisions we’ve been making.”
The possibility that Douglas would eventually be back on the field this spring at least provided some reason for optimism up front given his emergence a year ago.
But now the Vols will go into the season without a regular returning starter to protect a new quarterback or block for a new running back.
“We lost two really good players, man — especially Aaron Douglas,” senior wide receiver Gerald Jones said. “Bryce Brown did a wonderful job last year. It hurts to lose them, it really does. But the thing is, we lost a coach last year, we lost a couple of coaches last year. What do we have to do? We’ve got to move on.
“We would love to have those guys on the team, but unfortunately we don’t, so we just have to keep moving. I think it brings the team together. I think even the coaching change brought the team together. We’re in here, we play, and when we’re on the field it’s each other that we play for. We’ve got to have everybody’s back. It sucks to not have (Douglas), but I think we’ll be all right without him.”
The Vols have already been at work without him this spring. Now they know that’s the way it will stay.