Tennessee players begin to prepare for LSU
Game summary: Tennessee vs. Georgia
Tennessee reacts to losing QB Tyler Bray for 5-6 weeks with a broken thumb
Had Derek Dooley been so inclined, there was a ready-make excuse even before the first day of practice, thanks to the lack of veterans on his roster.
The Tennessee coach could have pointed out another after dismissing arguably his best player in the middle of training camp.
Now nearing the halfway point of the season with a date against top-ranked LSU at Neyland Stadium on Saturday (TV: WVLT, 3:30 p.m.), Dooley has one more new option to pre-emptively temper expectations or justify a possible loss after another significant injury struck the Vols over the weekend.
But like he's done while looking at an inexperienced roster or torn knee ligaments for wide receiver Justin Hunter, parting ways with safety Janzen Jackson or preparing a new linebacker after Herman Lathers fractured his ankle, Dooley is again focusing only on what he can do to address the loss of Tyler Bray instead of wasting time complaining about his quarterback's broken thumb.
"When I was sitting around (before the season), I didn't plan on not having Herman and Janzen and Tyler and Justin," Dooley said during his Monday news conference. "Had I known that, I would have rolled up my sleeves and you go to work.
What do you do? Nobody's going to feel sorry for Tennessee and they're not going to feel sorry for me, and that's OK.
"But I'm not going to go in the tank because we've had some things that happened to us that make it a lot more challenging. Anybody can go in the tank and blame. We've just got to find solutions. That's what we're going to do — compete like men."
The competition hardly gets much stiffer than the No. 1 Tigers (6-0, 3-0 SEC), and the timing seemingly couldn't be much worse for the Vols (3-2, 0-2 SEC) to have to make a change under center with one of the most physical defenses in the country coming for a visit. But unlike some of the previous injury issues he has had to address, at quarterback Dooley couldn't even use youth as an excuse if he wanted to.
When Lathers went down over the summer, his starting role was subsequently filled by a true freshman. When Jackson was kicked off the team, the Vols shuffled the secondary and started a freshman at cornerback in the opener and are now easing another into a role at safety.
After losing Hunter at Florida a little more than three weeks ago, UT plugged in one more true freshman to lead the team in catches in a losing effort.
But in Matt Simms, the Vols have a senior coming off the bench to take over the offense — one who was seconds away from pulling a major upset over LSU a year ago.
"Football is a game of injuries, and it's the next man in," left guard Alex Bullard said. "We're all feeling bad about Tyler and hope he gets back soon. But we're also excited for Matt because we know Matt works just as hard as anybody, he runs every sprint that we run, he conditions like we condition, and now he finally gets his opportunity. I really believe he's going to take advantage of it.
"Obviously, Justin, Herman and Bray, they're all great players. But, I mean, that's why you have a two-deep depth chart, a three-deep depth chart. I'm not going to say it's not going to hurt without them being out there, but we have confidence in the players that are backing up."
The Vols have already had to give a handful of them larger roles than expected, often with their first significant action in the program.
That's one product of having a roster short on juniors and seniors, and UT really has little choice but to play so many fresh faces.
Of course, another option to blaming some losses in the past on that fact is looking to the future and what the experience might bring later.
"I don't have any doubts that Tennessee is going to be what Tennessee expects to be," Dooley said. "But we also have to confront some tough, brutal facts that we're facing right now. Is it going to be tough? You're dang right. But you're presented with a set of circumstances every day and you can't change what's happened in the past.
"You've got to do deal with the circumstances you're presented with and go after it the best you can."