Adam Brimer/Knoxville News Sentinel Vols running back Montario Hardesty, center, holds on to the ball as defensive end Ben Martin (cq) grabs hold during practice at Haslam Field on the University of Tennessee campus Friday, August 7, 2009.
KNOXVILLE -- No shock. No awe. Just pain.
University of Tennessee football players said they haven't been surprised at the physical nature of preseason camp's first four days, despite a lack of full pads.
"These coaches told us we're only going to know one speed, and that's game speed," said senior guard Jacques McClendon, a former Baylor School standout.
The Volunteers, in compliance with NCAA rules, won't wear full pads until today's first practice, which will include a scrimmage at Neyland Stadium. They wore helmets, jerseys and shorts Tuesday and Wednesday and added shoulder pads Thursday and Friday, but drills and team periods have already sent a few players toward the sideline.
All-Southeastern Conference senior linebacker Rico McCoy (knee) and junior cornerback Brent Vinson (hamstring) sat out Friday, and highly touted freshman tailback Bryce Brown was held from contact after sustaining what first-year coach Lane Kiffin called a "slight concussion."
Sophomore tailback Tauren Poole was carted off the field during a Friday team period, but Kiffin said that injury was simply leg cramps.
Asked if any of those injuries were a byproduct of a physical first week, Kiffin quickly, firmly said, "No."
"Actually, I believe we had two people not practice that had come into camp practicing, so that's pretty good for 104 guys," he added.
Kiffin made similar remarks Thursday, when he said the staff and veterans have tried to physically and mentally "bury" the newcomers, who have fended that off so far, he added.
"We try to make (practices) as physical as we can, even without pads, but to have the shoulder pads on really picks up the tempo and intensity," Kiffin said. "Sometimes you almost get a little bit worried and you need to slow them down. But we need to learn how to hit, so we're not going to slow them down yet.
"They need it. There's no other way to simulate it. We'd rather have it happen now. Sometimes when you go 80 percent, or whatever people do, you get injured too. I think when you play 100 percent you actually get injured less."
Promising redshirt freshman middle linebacker -- who delivered Brown a crushing, fumble-forcing blow Thursday -- called the play a "Welcome to SEC ball" hit.
Kiffin said Brown had "probably never been hit like that in his whole life. That's what we need to do. This conference is going to hit him like this. They're not going to take it easy on him. Those were big-time, game-time, major hits. That's not 99 percent; that's running through him. He needs that.
"He fumbled it yesterday. If we went the avenue where we practiced 80 percent, that would have been the opener right there the first time that he got hit."
First-year players haven't been made available to the media yet, but Kiffin and Lathers said Brown responded well to the hit and fumble -- and concussion, too, apparently.
"Give him credit," Lathers said. "He got up and came right back at us."
Brown and his classmates might have seen several surprises this week, but veterans said they grew accustomed to the routine in spring practice.
"With these coaches, everything is physical," junior offensive tackle Jarrod Shaw said. "It doesn't matter if we have pads on or not. We want to go full speed. That's how you make everybody better.
"From when we came into spring, we knew we were going to come out into spring and hit each other with no pads on."
Said junior quarterback Nick Stephens: "If you don't like contact, you shouldn't be out here on the football field."
"As players, we have to take that into account so that it's habit," McClendon said. "You want to create good habits, and that's what this coaching staff is making us do. Whether we're in shells or shocks or whatever, we go the same speed. That way, when game time comes it's habit."
Kiffin promised that today would be "even more physical." The Vols, donning full pads for the first time, will scrimmage in Neyland Stadium at about 3 p.m.
"We're going to scrimmage and let them tackle and see who can really tackle, who can play off cut blocks and play real football when everything else is going on," Kiffin said.