By Matt Dixon
KNOXVILLE — The past two practices have focused on back-to-basic fundamentals for the University of Tennessee football team.
Considering this is the Volunteers only bye week this season, first-year head coach Derek Dooley wanted practices to resemble training camp, with lots of contact and physical play.
“Two good days of work, got a lot accomplished and got a little better as a team,” Dooley said after Wednesday’s practice at Haslam Field. “I don’t know how much, but we got a little better, and that’s what our objective was. I think every player got a little better in some fashion, and tomorrow we’ll turn our attention to our next opponent (Alabama) and start working on them a little bit.”
Dooley said having an open date can sometimes lead to a lack of focus and sloppy practices. But he said his inexperienced team has been eager to get back on the practice field and work following disappointing losses at LSU and Georgia.
“Open dates are tough on every team,” Dooley said. “Who wants to practice when you don’t play? Not many guys. I think it was easier for our team, because they are young and they know they need a lot of work. So the attitude was great.”
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said this week has allowed the defense to focus mainly on areas that will improve each player individually, as opposed to having to game plan for the team’s next opponent.
“I think it is a little bit of tweaking and a lot of fundamentals,” Wilcox said of the week’s goals. “You look at what you had success with, what are the things that hurt you schematically, and you tweak those things in the bye week. But the majority of the time is spent on fundamentals and getting better at the things we need to get better at. I wish we had a bye week between every game, because that’s what is important about continuing to develop as a player. Once you get into the season, it’s game plan after game plan. And you can never forget the fundamentals of the game, because that’s what is going to win and lose in the end.
“We’ve got to continue to improve on those fundamentals for us to be successful.”
One of the defense’s main focuses has been tackling. The Vols have struggled most of this season to corral ball carriers down in the open field.
“The more you practice tackling, the better you get at it,” senior strongside linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said. “The more you practice form tackling, the better and better that you get in a game. In certain situations, you learn how to make a certain tackle, so you just have to get better and better at it.”
Wilcox said two of tackling’s three components have nothing to do with natural ability.
“Tackling is a combination of effort, toughness and athletic ability, and without any of those three things, you aren’t going to be very good,” Wilcox said. “You have to develop all three of them, and you do it by drills, you do it by practicing tackling — which we are doing — and live situations.”
Injuries are always a risk with physical practices, and UT’s depth concerns are well-documented. Still, Wilcox doesn’t think his players will get more fundamentally sound without wrapping up and driving players to the ground as much as possible during the week.
“You can’t go out and worry about getting hurt,” Wilcox said. “Obviously, we’ve got to be smart about it, but you’re going to get better at tackling by tackling people. You can sit here and work on your foot work in tackling. You can work on tackling bags, but if you are going to get better at it you going to have to tackle, so we are doing a lot of that.”
Sophomore defensive tackle Montori Hughes won’t practice this week after injuring his ankle at Georgia. He’s worn a walking boot around campus, and Dooley said the tackle wouldn’t be able to play if the Vols had a game this weekend.
Dooley said senior kicker Daniel Lincoln and sophomore left tackle Dallas Thomas will also sit out practice all week, but that both would be reevaluated next week in hopes of getting on the field Monday.