KNOXVILLE -- After a few days in shorts and shoulder pads, the University of Tennessee football team will have a contract-free scrimmage today. The Volunteers will start preparing specifically for season-opening opponent Western Kentucky on Sunday.
"After that big scrimmage (last Saturday), practice is a little toned down and all of that, but it's still high-tempo," senior offensive guard Vladimir Richard said. "Right now, a lot of us are basically still just fighting and battling, and the coaches are still pushing us hard, and we're just trying to come out here and deliver.
"We've just got to come out here and keep fighting and not think about the timing, the heat and our bodies wearing down. Some of our bodies are wearing down right now, so we've just got to try to fight through injuries and just through everything, and just stay focused."
First-year coach Lane Kiffin pounded on that point early this week, repeatedly reminding the players that "this is still camp."
"We're still going to be battling hard, and we've still got to come out here and give him what he wants," Richard said.
Kiffin didn't get all he wanted through the week, though, other than Wednesday's news that the NCAA had cleared freshman tailback Bryce Brown to play. The early-week injury report didn't help. Junior wide receiver Gerald Jones and senior center Josh McNeil were sidelined with ankle and knee injuries and could be out a month or longer.
"We were feeling sorry for ourselves a little bit, just going through the motions," Kiffin said of Wednesday's practice start.
He was similarly displeased Tuesday, though he complimented the team's freshman receivers for responding to Jones' injury with more consistent performances.
"And that's good, because we really need them now," Kiffin said.
Richard noted the offensive line's disappointment with McNeil's situation, so he made a point to stay on the field as much as possible through the week despite clear discomfort in his left leg.
"I felt like if it was something I just couldn't handle, I would have stayed out," Richard said. "But I was able to come back and finish practice, so everything's good. Around here, you've just got to be tough-minded, and I feel like by me having a little nick or bruise or whatever and just showing toughness, that's going to show the younger guys how the SEC is, and how you have to fight through injuries.
"The SEC is a tough conference, and people will get nicked up, but you've just got to realize whether it's a nick or whether you're really hurt. I just wanted to show them I was tough enough to come back out and practice, and for them to have the mindset if they were ever banged up."
UT continued its recent game-weekend simulation Friday with a pre-scrimmage walk-through. Players and coaches didn't address the media but traveled directly to a downtown hotel as they will before every home game. This time they had meetings there but didn't stay overnight.
"We don't want the Western Kentucky game to feel like a completely new experience for our guys, especially our young guys who haven't played a game here before," Kiffin said. "We need to expose them to everything we can now."
Redshirt freshman linebacker Herman Lathers said the coaches "are still getting us ready for battle."
"They're not letting us get relaxed just because we're playing Western Kentucky," Lathers added. "You've got to be prepared for anybody you play. Any given day you can be beat, so you've just got to be prepared.
"(Coaches) have had more of an intensity level because it's just a few days away and they're getting more excited the closer we get."
But the pads didn't pop quite as fiercely as they did the first three weeks. And the coaches didn't add anything new to the playbook, choosing to sharpen what had already been installed.
"That's been real nice," junior tight end Luke Stocker said. "You can focus down on the details of your assignments, and not necessarily just trying to figure out what you have to do. You can really focus on the details -- every little step, every little angle -- and that really makes it a lot better for the offense."
Junior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz said the defense has had a similar experience.
"September fifth is going to be here before we know it, so we have to do everything we can in the next few days to make sure we know all our assignments and reads and all of that," Reveiz said. "Everybody on offense, defense and special teams needs to be ready."