This year, for instance. After being short-handed during his first two seasons at the helm, Tennessee's third-year head man finally has a team with enough talent, experience and maturity to compete at the SEC level. Tennessee media sense that he's more relaxed and confident. Tennessee players sense it, too.
"Definitely," senior linebacker Herman Lathers said this week. "We gave him a reason to be more relaxed and confident. We came together and busted our butts ever since December of last year. We built the confidence in ourselves. Now we have to go out every day and prove it."
Junior wide receiver Justin Hunter also sees a change in the head man.
"Yeah, I didn't see him yell during the (opening) game," Hunter said. "I was surprised by that because last year he was yelling and yelling and yelling. This year he was real calm, even had a few smiles."
On the practice field, however, Dooley exhibits even more intensity than before ... even as the Vols prepare to face a lightly regarded Georgia State squad.
"He's always been fired up," sophomore safety Brian Randolph said, "but I can tell this year he really wants it and wants us to do our best. He doesn't want us to slack, no matter who we're playing."
Junior defensive back Eric Gordon has noticed a difference in Dooley's demeanor, as well.
"I do sense that confidence in him," Gordon said. "I guess he sees a lot of playmakers out here (on the practice field), a lot of guys who can make a lot of plays, and I think that gives him a little comfort."
It gives Tennessee's players comfort, too, when they look around the practice field and see far more talent and experience than was evident in 2010 and 2011.
"We do," Lathers said. "We've got a lot more experience, a lot more guys who have played a year or two. When you trust the guy next to you you're able to make plays. Having that playing experience and that trust means a lot."
Senior defensive back Marsalis Teague said the new level of confidence goes beyond talent and experience levels. He suggests there is a much better team chemistry in 2012.
|Fifth-year senior Herman Lathers says the Vols have busted tail since December to right the ship.|
Several Vols agree that team chemistry and confidence improved dramatically between the end of the 2011 season and the start of the 2012 campaign.
"We worked hard ever since December of last year," Lathers said. "We came together as a team and built that trust in one another. It carried over into the summer workouts and into fall camp. Milligan was a good experience for us, just getting together and focusing on football. Once we built that trust and got that confidence we were able to go out and play fast."
Senior Dallas Thomas believes he and the other offensive linemen have more confidence this season because they understand the game better.
"That (confidence) is more about knowing what we're doing," he said. "It's understanding defenses. We knew we had the size and athletic ability to get the job done. It's just knowing your assignments, knowing how to fit in on blocks."
Tennessee's defense was an area of concern entering the opener. After recording four interceptions and a safety in Game 1, however, the stop unit has a new legion of believers.
"You've got to hope you've got playmakers and dominant players on the team," Hunter said, "and I think the defense is real dominant this year. We went out there and had four interceptions, and I don't remember the last time we had four interceptions in a game. They came to play. They're real confident now."
Apparently, much of the defense's newfound swagger trickles down from its coordinator.
"Coach Sal's a guy who's used to winning and knows how to win," Lathers said. "He demands the best out of us every day. He pushes us every day and calls good plays. We just have to be ready to do whatever he calls."
Sunseri isn't the only aide who has bolstered Tennessee's confidence level, however. Having so many assistants with NFL experience seems to have given Dooley and his team an emotional lift.
"Everyone — from the new receivers to the new guys on the staff — helped get him in his comfort zone," Gordon said. "Our special teams coach (Charlie Coiner) was in the NFL and, of course, Coach Sal. (Derrick) Ansley coached first-round draft picks and (offensive coordinator Jim) Chaney coached in the NFL. It's the whole staff and the whole organization. It's a whole different vibe."
Teague touched on the same theme, noting: "Really, it's the whole organization. It sounds crazy but it really is. It starts from the top down. We're all on the same page and in sync."
"Oh, confidence is very important for any type of player," Teague said, "especially in the SEC, where you're playing top-caliber teams week in and week out."
For the first time in the Derek Dooley era, Tennessee appears to be a confident and poised football team. That bodes well for the rest of 2012.
"Definitely," Lathers said. "We know we have the talent as well as anybody in the conference. It's just about going out, practicing and getting better every day."
Hunter says the Vols believe in themselves, in their coaches and in their destiny.
"I just say we're on a mission," he said. "We're on a mission to win. We're not going to have a losing season again. We want to have a winning season, make it to a bowl and win that."
If you missed some of InsideTennessee's video interviews this week on campus, get caught up below: