A number of Tennessee players took to their Twitter pages early Monday morning to express their excitement over a chance to return to their hometowns for the weekend.
“Nashville on my mind,” wide receiver Zach Rogers wrote. “Can’t wait to get some of mom’s cooking and hang with the fam!”
“Atl, Toccoa GA on my mind!!” replied tailback Tauren Poole.
Getting there in one piece might be the hardest part.
The Vols will hold their first of two “hardcore camp practices” this afternoon, coach Derek Dooley said. The players will have to survive the next two days before they can even think about enjoying the benefits of a weekend off during the grueling 13-week stretch that is the college football season.
It will resume Oct. 23, when the Vols host No. 8 Alabama (7 p.m. ESPN), but the extra week largely won’t be used to specifically prepare for the Crimson Tide.
“We have so much development that we have to get. We’re so far behind fundamentally,” Dooley said. “We have such little experience in so many areas, that we need to go out there and block and tackle and go against each other at a fast pace and go play.”
Dooley, at his address Monday for the Knoxville Quarterback Club at Calhoun’s on the River, said he’s dressed as few as 65-70 scholarship players because of injuries and the long-lasting effects of attrition caused by two coaching changes in two years. He’s given the team the past three Mondays off as a way for the thin group to heal up and remain fresh, but that mindset will go out the window today and Wednesday.
“It’s very difficult,” Dooley said. “But I know this: If you don’t practice, you don’t play well.”
Dooley, a lawyer before he went into coaching, presented his case with a relatable example.
Offensive tackle Dallas Thomas, who suffered a sprained ankle against LSU, was mostly held out of practice last week because UT had few, if any, options to replace him if he weren’t healthy enough to play against Georgia. Both Dooley’s and Thomas’ own reviews of how he played against the Bulldogs were less than stellar, as Thomas said he played at “about 90 percent” and sat out most of the fourth quarter.
“When you rest them, you know they’re probably not going to play well anyway,” Dooley said. “I still believe that you can’t coach worrying about injuries and you got to get a deep team to be able to do that.”
There won’t be much rest allotted into the UT coaching staff’s schedule, either.
Dooley said he and his assistant coaches will hit the road over the weekend on respective recruiting trips. Throughout the week, they’ll play catch-up with their film review of potential prospects.
On Monday, players shuffled in and out of the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center for one-on-one meetings with their position coaches and Dooley. The meetings, Dooley said, were designed to benefit both parties.
“It starts with us evaluating our personnel and our players and our schemes to see if we’re coaching the right guys and where we want to head down the stretch,” he said. “They all have to set some individual goals on improvements they can make fundamentally.”
Dooley has already played 15 true freshmen this season, plucking players from a class that he said has proven to have “very few misses.” Seven of those freshmen played on an offensive series during the fourth quarter against Georgia, one that nearly led to a touchdown.
It was one of the few bright spots from the rout. It also may have provided a sneak preview for what the Vols will look like not only in the years to come, but throughout the rest of the season.
Just don’t call it a rebuilding year around Dooley.
“What’s most important is trying to win each game,” Dooley said. “Sometimes that means playing the freshmen if you feel like you’ve got a better chance to win.
“I’m not one of those guys that says ‘Let’s tank the season and develop for next year.’ I’m trying to win. That’s my responsibility to the team and it’s our responsibility to the players and the fans.”
Andrew Gribble can be reached at 865-342-6327.