John Adams: UT challenge: get tough, stay healthy

Tennessee football players began contact drills Saturday. And a balancing act began, as well.

You have to be tough to succeed in college football. You also have to be healthy.

So every football coach has to evaluate the risk of hitting too much or too little at this time of year.

The risks are magnified when you are rebuilding a program as Derek Dooley and his staff are in their second year at UT. You were reminded of that Friday when the Vols announced that preseason All-SEC defensive tackle Malik Jackson would miss two weeks of practice with a sprained right knee.

That's manageable in preseason. But imagine if the same injury would occur in October when the Vols must play Georgia, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina in succession without an open date.

Football can be a treacherous game even when players aren't colliding at full speed. The danger is exacerbated when the dial is turned to full contact.

Dooley has made it clear that while not oblivious to the game's hazards, he's committed to fielding a tough, physical team. He confirmed that in his preseason media conference last week when he pointed out that the game has been softened at the high school level to the extent that teaching such football basics as blocking and tackling have become more paramount in college. They can't be taught strictly with an instructional video. Hitting is required.

The old-school approach to football conveyed the message: tough teams win; tougher teams win more. As you might remember, Bear Bryant subscribed to that philosophy. If you don't remember, read "The Junction Boys" by Jim Dent, who described Bryant's infamous 10-day training camp in 1954 before his first season as head coach at Texas A&M.

The program needed toughening up, Bryant decided. So the team was transported to the small town of Junction, Texas, which was in the midst of a drought. Temperatures soared and players fell by the wayside. What was left of the team went 1-9.

But the Aggies' next team won seven games. And the 1956 team went 9-0-1 and won the Southwest Conference championship.

Coach Charlie Bradshaw must have been taking notes. He might have picked up a few more tips when he played under Bryant at Kentucky, then later served as an assistant coach on Bryant's Alabama staff.

If Bryant was old school, Bradshaw was medieval. The "thin thirty" can vouch for that. They comprised what was left of Bradshaw's first team at Kentucky in 1962. They, too, became the subject of a book, "The Thin Thirty," in which author Shannon Ragland chronicled the attrition of a team that went from 88 to 30 players in a year.

Howard Dunnebacke of Oak Ridge can give you a firsthand account of how it began. Dunnebacke, who started for Kentucky as a 170-pound fullback, survived the 1962 season as a fourth-year junior but didn't return for what would have been his senior season.

"I guess the thing that best summed up (the 1962 season) was one of the reviews of the book," said Dunnebacke, who graduated from Kentucky in engineering and is now retired in Oak Ridge after spending much of his career in Austin, Texas.

Dunnebacke said the reviewer referred to the twofold philosophy of Bryant and Green Bay legend Vince Lombardi in which you first "tore down players completely; then, second, built them back up. But what if you overdo one and ignore two altogether?"

Players were abused verbally and physically under Bradshaw, the program eventually went on NCAA probation, and there was another off-the field scandal before the Bradshaw era ended after the 1968 season. The final accounting wasn't exactly Bryant-like: 25 wins, 41 losses and 4 ties.

Bradshaw's players might have been the toughest guys east of Junction, Texas, but there weren't enough of them. He obviously didn't grasp the significance of balancing hitting with health.

UT defensive backs coach Terry Joseph emphasizes that his boss is keenly aware of the issue.

"Coach Dooley truly believes that the system we have will not only develop toughness but also develop a proper technique and will give your body enough rest to recover and be strong throughout the season," said Joseph, who is beginning his fifth season as an assistant coach under Dooley. "Obviously, we've got a few guy that if we lose them, it's going to be an issue. We've got to be smart about how we schedule the practices.

"But again, you can't go into every practice worrying about somebody getting injured. We'll practice the way we always do and stress toughness."

And the balancing act will continue.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or adamsj@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns.

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Comments » 9

pomp_and_circumstance writes:

Ok. We got the history on Bryant and some non-entity named Bradshaw 50 years ago. How about some insight on the practice field at UT in August 2011? Will the Vols be tough? Will injuries deplete the roster by 15 players? What is the Dooley balance all about? Risky? Absolutely necessary? Did you see the practice today John? Any ideas about today?

flatrock writes:

Take a deep breath p_and_c: there is no in-depth practice report because the media is banned from the meaningful practice periods. Just a sign of the times. Way too much media. Too much made of the bogus recruiting services. Suggestion: take the $120 you spend on those services and buy a kid a helmet!

Bigger_Al writes:

Adams should have pointed out the approaches of Fulmer and Kiffin regarding the amount of physical contact. Fulmer worked the balance, trying to preserve the health of players fighting injuries. Kiffin went all out, basically ruining the chances of Vlad Richard and Josh McNeil to play (insert the Sullins brothers), and limited the snaps of Chris Walker and Wes Brown. What was left was higher on toughness, lower on talent. Helped us hang tough vs. Alabama in 2009, but hurt us in sealing the deal (inner line collapsed by the 350# helmet-throwing guy).

civilianvol_formerly_marinevol writes:

"...the twofold philosophy of Bryant and Green Bay legend Vince Lombardi in which you first tore down players completely; then, second, built them back up."

That's the same philosophy as boot camp. The self-confidence instilled when they are "built back up" is the key to the final result. When I arrived at Parris Island, I was prepared physically, but no one could have prepared me for the mental aspect. When I graduated from Parris Island, I was so full of self-confidence that I thought that any non-Marine in the world would be a damn fool to mess with me. Even false self-confidence (like mine was) can cause you to overachieve. Physically, I doubt that there will be that much difference between any two SEC teams. IMO, it will be skill and mental toughness that determines the outcome of games.

BlueHound writes:

One of the major differences in today's college football is that the players participate in year round "voluntary" workouts with the Strength and Conditioning Coaches. Players are in much better shape physically when Spring and Fall camps begin, so less time is needed for the "toughening up" i.e. getting the players lean and mean. I played football for 12 years and the opening week of every spring and fall camp practices were dominated by conditioning drills just to get the guys in good enough shape to not just survive a live football game, but also to prevail in the game. And that last part is where coaches in the past have gone overboard. It is not as critical to condition the players in camps now days as it was when I played. See CDD's comments on the "old school" lineman Allen, from a day or two ago.

RockyTopinAlabubba writes:

As if I don't hear enough about Bear Bryant already here in Alabubba. Any conversation about football down here ends in.....Well,Bear Bryant....... That name shouldn't even be mentioned on this website. Go Vols!

BigVolFaninSC writes:

I always had heard that when players practice or play NOT to get injured, the chances actually increase for injuries to happen. I don't think they should take unnecessary chances, but caution is not the way to coach and I don't see that philosophy from Dooley! He seems to be very cerebral in his approach, not to mention very detail oriented! GBO

TennVol01 writes:

Duh !!!!

The_Real_Orange writes:

in response to TennVolAlum:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I have to agree with you to a point, but don't blame Adams. Every story that comes from players and coaches at this time of year is how they "worked like never before" and "we are a close team" now. Just once I would love to hear em say.....we did the same stupid conditioning drills this summer, hopefully we will get better results this season.

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