His third year at Tennessee wasn’t supposed to be a rebuilding year, but Derek Dooley will head into his most important season with replacements for nearly half of the members of his 2011 coaching staff.
Two offseason departures turned into four Monday, as defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon both left the Vols for the same positions at the University of Washington.
Dooley will address the moves and other offseason developments today in his first meeting with reporters since the Vols’ season-ending loss at Kentucky in November. He has plenty to discuss.
Since the Vols fell to 5-7 and assured a second consecutive losing season for the first time in nearly a century, Dooley has parted ways with wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett, seen tight ends/special teams coach Eric Russell leave for Washington State and now has two vacancies on defense with Wilcox’s and Sirmon’s departures. Also up in the air is the status of wide receivers Da’Rick Rogers, whom multiple outlets reported to be suspended last month, and DeAnthony Arnett, who has asked for a release from his scholarship but is upset because UT won’t sign off on a transfer to Michigan State or Michigan.
Dooley has already filled one of the coaching vacancies, hiring former Vol Jay Graham to coach running backs, but still has three openings with less than a month until National Signing Day. Sirmon and Wilcox were both heavily involved in UT’s recruiting efforts, and at least two UT commitments have de-committed. Wide receiver commit Keithon Redding (Decatur, Ga.) told govols247.com that he was no longer considering the Vols, and linebacker Khalid Henderson (Mableton, Ga.) announced his decision Sunday night through a post on his Twitter account.
“Im decomitting from Tennessee. ....” he wrote.
“So many recruits lost today,” Rogers wrote on his Twitter account Monday evening. “Wish I could tell you otherwise fellas .. but that’s whats goin on here...”
Both Wilcox, 35, and Sirmon, 34, are natives of the Pacific Northwest, with Sirmon hailing from Wenatchee, Wash., and Wilcox growing up in Eugene, Ore.
Wilcox played at Oregon from 1995-99, began his coaching career at Boise State and served two stints there, splitting up his time as a graduate assistant (2001-02) and defensive coordinator (2006-09) with three seasons as a linebackers coach at California.
“I’m grateful for this opportunity,” Wilcox said in a statement released by the Huskies. “Washington is a place where you can win big, and I’m excited to work with Coach Sarkisian in developing a championship-caliber football program. Our first order of business is hitting the recruiting trail, and I can’t wait to get started.”
Sirmon was a teammate and roommate of Wilcox’s at Oregon before embarking on a seven-year career with the Tennessee Titans. He began his coaching career at Central Washington in 2008, returned to Oregon as a graduate assistant in 2009 and occupied the same position at UT in 2010 before he was promoted to linebackers coach in 2011. Unlike Russell, who worked alongside new Washington State coach Mike Leach in the past, neither Sirmon nor Wilcox has worked on the same staff as Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian, who fired his entire defensive coaching staff after a 67-56 loss to Baylor in last week’s Alamo Bowl.
Per his contract, which was finalized just last month, Sirmon — or the Huskies — will owe UT $75,000.
Wilcox owes the Vols nothing after renegotiating his contract this past summer, eliminating a buyout clause that had him owing the school $300,000 if he left for anything less than a Division I head coaching position. Wilcox, whose name was recently linked to a number of head coaching vacancies, had plenty of bargaining power after he turned down an opportunity at Texas to remain with the Vols last season.
Wilcox was set to make $750,000 in 2012 and Sirmon, after making $150,000 in 2011, was to receive a raise to $175,000. Terms of their agreements at Washington are unknown.
Despite a lack of proven talent and periodic breakdowns throughout the year, the Vols finished the 2011 season ranked 28th in the nation in total defense. One year after allowing nearly 382 yards per game, a figure that ranked 70th in the country, UT surrendered 340 yards per game this season.
Though it allowed more than 35 points in three of its losses, UT posted a shutout against Middle Tennessee State and surrendered an average of 11.3 points in losses to Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky.
Thanks to a dearth of effective quarterbacks in the SEC, UT finished 12th in the nation (sixth in the SEC) with an average of 177.83 passing yards allowed per game. The 2010 Vols, who had Janzen Jackson at safety and Prentiss Waggner playing at cornerback, allowed more than 229 passing yards per game, which ranked 82nd in the country.
Sirmon inherited a linebacking corps that was without its top returning tackler (Herman Lathers) and littered with players who had little to no experience. The emergence of freshmen A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt and strong play from senior middle linebacker Austin Johnson, though, made it one of the most reliable units on the entire defense.
Redshirt freshman cornerback Geraldo Orta and former linebacker Daryl Vereen, who just finished his UT career, took to Twitter on Monday to air their grievances about the latest staff change.
“Ain’t nun gone get done at Tennessee if we keep changing coaches...” Orta wrote.
“Tennessee should have never fired Coach (Phillip) Fulmer. Tennesse (sic) will be just a rest stop for coaches,” Vereen wrote. “Don’t get me wrong I will always be a #VFL, just upset for my lil brothas, its not fun going thru all these different coaches.”
Offensive tackle JaWuan James, meanwhile, remained upbeat.
“As players we need to just keep believing in the system and play for each other,” he wrote. “It’s a new year so it’s a new start. Well be alright.”
Andrew Gribble may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble