KNOXVILLE -- Derek Dooley walked off Haslam Field in an anticipatory mood Tuesday night.
The coach hoped video of his first full-pads practice with the University of Tennessee football team would uncover a few good surprises.
UT practiced twice in shorts and helmets last week, but Dooley said "real football" started Tuesday.
"The first thing you're looking for is who shows dramatic differences between pads and shorts," Dooley said. "You hope there's not much difference and not many surprises. You hope the surprises are more the guys who didn't really flash in shorts but now they're showing up because of their toughness, their explosive power, their twitch. Those things show up more in pads, especially up front. That's really what you're looking at.
"Sometimes it's hard when it's six blockers and six defenders. You don't really know what will happen unless there's contact being made, so this is really the first big evaluation."
And the coach wasn't nearly ready to say how those evaluations went.
"It's too early for that. I've got to go watch the film," Dooley said. "And I kind of like to say, 'Show up over time.' Everybody's going to have some good days and everybody's going to have some bad days, and I don't think you want to get panicked either way. You don't want to get too excited when a guys flashes, and you don't want to get too down when he has a bad day.
"We'll see over time."
Dooley said his team's spirit was fine but that its tempo was slow. Way too slow. But that's what he expected.
"The team probably ran half the plays not even knowing what the down or distance was," Dooley said. "The other big thing is we really need to pick up the tempo on specials teams. That's a critical component of winning, and we probably didn't perform the way we needed to in that phase. We've got a lot or work to do to finding the guys and understanding how to work at it and be good at it.
"But it was a typical first day in pads. There was a lot of excitement early on, but it's also an adjustment."
Wide receiver Denarius Moore said Tuesday was "a great starting point."
"It felt like real football started today," Moore said. "Everybody's been waiting to be in full pads for a while now, and it was good to finally do it. We've got a long way to go, but we'll keep working until we get it."
The defense has one simple objective: relearn to tackle.
"It kind of felt like I was in middle school," defensive tackle Marlon Walls said. "It was very basic, but at the same time, it's what we need. We need to go back to the fundamentals and just work on form tackling.
"We need to learn how to tackle again and knock the rust off."
Dooley showed the defenders their tackling circuit and urged them to get comfortable with it, because it will become a staple during their time at UT. He couldn't tell how many players made and missed their assignments during last season's games, because he admittedly didn't know what they were asked to do on every play.
"It doesn't matter what scheme you put in defensively. If you're not a good tackling football team, you've got no chance," Dooley said. "We're going to work on tackling a lot. I think the biggest change is when we don't tackle, how do we 'thud'? You can become a good tackling football team by learning how to thud properly, because it requires you to bring both feet and run through the ball carrier. If guys are used to leaving their feet, then they're not making good tackles and not using good tackling form. It forces you to use your feet more and get in a better position tackle.
"Usually when you stay in position, you're going to make the tackle."
The defenders wrapped up and tackled tailback Toney Williams on Tuesday for the first time since last spring. The Chattanooga native and former Atlanta-area high school star tore his ACL during a seven-on-seven drill and had to redshirt -- which greatly disappointed a player who graduated high school one semester early in hopes of playing as a true freshman.
Williams was understandably nervous going into Tuesday but left the field with a big smile. He was equal parts sore and satisfied.
"Man, I was really eager, because I didn't really know where I was at," Williams said. "When you just get touched, you can't really tell where you're at. But when you get tackled and you've got to get up, and you feel the pressure on your knee, it's just a different level. And it felt good today.
"I already know I'm going to be sore tomorrow. I'll be sore tonight, no question about it. But I've just got to get through it and get better."
Players who come back from torn knee ligaments often say one of the toughest parts is convincing themselves to trust the joint. Some players take weeks and months to feel good about planting their foot in the ground and taking a hit.
"I was a little nervous, because I didn't know what the (first) hit was going to feel like," said Williams, whose opportunity for significant snaps increased with Bryce Brown's at-least-temporary departure from the team. "But once I got hit and got back up, I was like, 'Hey, it's just football again.' It feels great to know I can take a hit again. I've got the confidence back."
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