- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- First-year Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, entrusted with returning what was once one of the most stable football programs in the SEC to some semblance of stability after a chaotic 21 months, chuckles at the expression.
It's one you're hearing almost daily now on Rocky Top, where the orange masses are bracing for what could be some rocky times ahead.
"Give him time."
Looking at the Vols' roster, in particular the team's lack of depth and experience, not to mention its grueling schedule, Dooley deserves some time to turn around a program that hasn't been this low since John Majors came marching home to his alma mater more than 30 years ago.
In three of the last five seasons, the Vols have lost at least six games. Included were two losing seasons that did in longtime coach Phillip Fulmer. Last season's 7-6 drive-by was engineered by Lane Kiffin, who subsequently left Knoxville for USC in controversial fashion, ending a turbulent 14 months that made the Tennessee campus a popular hangout for NCAA investigators.
But back to that "Give him time" thing.
Dooley, the son of SEC coaching legend Vince Dooley, knows exactly what that means in this conference.
"Look, here's the reality," Dooley said. "Every coach has time until the first kickoff, not even the first game, but the first kickoff. Right when the ball goes 'boom' against UT-Martin, your time's over.
"You've got no more time. You've got to win."
Indeed, patience in the SEC is akin to playing nice on the recruiting trail in this league. Allegedly, it exists, but in theory only.
Dooley's eyes were wide open when he took this job. He's not naive. There's a reason that several people passed on it before he was offered the job and that he would even have a shot in the first place after compiling a 17-20 record in three seasons as Louisiana Tech's head coach.
One of the candidates the Vols talked to said privately that it was at least a three-year rebuilding job. Others were worried about the culture that had developed around the program, and the roster wasn't a pretty sight, either.
The Vols are currently at 76 scholarship players heading into the season, which is nine under the NCAA limit of 85, and that includes three walk-ons who were recently awarded scholarships. Two signees in the 2010 class didn't make it academically, and two more are still pending. Their starting offensive line and two starting defensive tackles have a combined three career starts, all by senior guard Jarrod Shaw.
Junior college newcomer Matt Simms is the probable starter at quarterback, and he's never taken a snap in an SEC game. The secondary is also precariously thin, even more so after Dooley dismissed starting safety Darren Myles Jr. following his arrest in connection with a bar brawl involving several Tennessee players last month.
But unlike his predecessor, Dooley hasn't talked incessantly about the lack of talent on campus and how he needs to go recruit better players.
Instead, he's embraced the challenge of having so many young players and first-year starters and getting them ready to play.
"I've never been anywhere that we've had to play this many guys that don't have experience, not necessarily freshmen," Dooley said. "I've played a lot of freshmen, but I've never been anywhere that even your sophomores to juniors had never played. That's new. But you know what? They've got a coach who's new, too. We'll all be in it together.
"We know there are going to be some mistakes, but we have to do a good job as coaches not to get ahead of them. That's part of good coaching, too, having a real balance of pushing the envelope schematically to give yourself a chance to win, but not pushing it so much that your guys don't play fast and physical. That's what we're sorting through right now."
There was an adjustment period early on, and a handful of players left the program. But Dooley has endeared himself to the ones who've stayed with his blunt, straightforward style.
"He ain't really going to beat around the bush," said sophomore safety Janzen Jackson, perhaps the Vols' most talented player. "He ain't going to sugarcoat anything. That's what we need right now because we've had a lot of coaches in the past who've left and these players have been through a lot. We just need a coach who's going to be there and be assertive."
Something else about Dooley has also warmed Jackson's heart.
"He's going to fight for his team," Jackson said. "That's one thing I've learned since I've been here. Coach Dooley will fight for us in everything we need."
Dooley disagrees that the job has been any more daunting than he thought it was when he came aboard.
"The hardest part is the challenges you can't solve right now," he said. "We're sitting here operating with [fewer scholarship players than the NCAA limit], and that's not going to change until next year or the year after. So the depth issue and inexperience issue is a little bit daunting, but it doesn't mean you can't go out there and field a good team, and that's what we plan on doing.
"I feel better now about where we're headed than I did about a month ago. We're getting our structures in place. The team is understanding what our expectations are, and they're responding. Every time we've done something, they've responded in a positive way, and our recruiting is going very well."
The Vols already have 14 commitments, and while they haven't racked up on four- and five-star prospects, Dooley couldn't care less about winning the star game. What's important to him is the thoroughness of the evaluation process, and the Vols' staff has seen everybody committed thus far up close.
Moreover, Dooley is confident that the players he's reeling in are the right fit for the way he wants to run this program.
"We were late, but I feel like we've made up a lot of ground," Dooley said. "We're putting together a quality class right now and in the hunt for a lot of quality players. We need to go out and play well this fall and it will keep coming together."
A process-oriented guy just like his mentor, Nick Saban, Dooley hasn't stopped to think about where he hopes the program will be in three or four years, even though it probably won't be fair to fully evaluate his performance until the 2012 season.
For the record, Dooley says to evaluate away this season. He's certainly going to.
"What's the whole 'Give him time' thing really mean?" Dooley said. "It doesn't mean I'm sitting here thinking, 'I've got time.' In my mind, I've got one year. I approach it that way every year. We've got to figure out how we're going to win as many games as we can win this year, and that's all I care about."
Spoken like a guy who knows how to tell time in this league.
Chris Low covers college football for ESPN.com. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.