Staff Photo by Patrick Smith Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin looks over plays during Saturday's game against Georgia at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. The Volunteers won 45-19.
KNOXVILLE -- Their best player postponed announcement of his NFL draft status. Their head coach is still at the center of an NCAA review. Their coaching staff spends several hours a day trying to finalize one of the nation's top recruiting classes.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee Volunteers must prepare for a Dec. 31 Chick-fil-A Bowl clash with ACC power Virginia Tech.
Practice resumed Friday afternoon, and coach Lane Kiffin and his players maintained that their full focus -- at least on the practice field and in the meeting rooms -- will be on the 12th-ranked Hokies.
"None of this stuff is a distraction to us," said senior guard Jacques McClendon, a former Baylor School star. "We come out here, we practice football, we watch film. There's always going to be stuff that happens, but as a player and as a team you've got to be able to handle that. And I think we've done a great job of being able to handle that."
Kiffin said playing a marquee opponent in a bowl game helps everyone stay focused, though he added that his expectations would be the same in September or October.
"We're extremely excited to be in this game," Kiffin said. "This is a huge game for us, to be in this game in our first year here against an opponent that's been to back-to-back Orange bowls. I think both teams are very excited.
"This is a big-time matchup for us. We love every part of it."
Some of UT's early-enrolling newcomers have trickled onto campus, including 6-foot-7 California high school quarterback Tyler Bray. Kentucky fullback Channing Fugate and 6-6 Illinois wide receiver Matt Milton also have moved to Knoxville, and all three participated in Friday's practice after passing mandatory physicals.
The new Vols are probably arriving as one of the program's most iconic players departs. Kiffin said Friday that junior safety Eric Berry would delay his NFL draft announcement until after the bowl game, but several sources close to the two-time All-American expect him to forgo his final season of college eligibility.
"We were going to have an announcement today, but after talking to him, we've just decided to wait until after the bowl game," Kiffin said. "He wants to focus on winning this game and playing extremely well. He'll have an announcement for you right after the game."
Kiffin admitted Berry was "extremely ready" for the next level, and the coach has said several times that he's "given up hope" of having his best player back next season.
"If you look at Eric, one of the best things about him is his preparation throughout the week and the way that he practices, and that's critical," Kiffin said. "You see a number of players struggle in their first year in the NFL, because they're not used to it. In college, some guys can get by just on speed and ability. But when you get to that level, preparation is really important. Everyone is really fast; everyone is really talented.
"The difference between good and great is the preparation."
Starting today, UT will practice the next four mornings before departing for Christmas break. The players will reconvene Christmas night in Atlanta, whether they take the team trip from Knoxville or get to Atlanta on their own.
"The hotel is about 15 minutes from my house," said junior strongside linebacker LaMarcus Thompson, an Atlanta-area native. "I was telling everybody that I'm not leaving my house until about 7:30 on Christmas Day, and we've got to report at 8.
"Everybody's pretty mad at me about that."
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