KNOXVILLE — Derek Dooley always gives his football teams an extra day off during one week of the season.
“I think there’s a big incremental jump in recovery when you give them two days, as opposed to one,” the first-year, University of Tennessee head coach said Sunday night.
Usually, that time occurs near the midway point of the season, when a team has played five consecutive weeks.
The Volunteers (2-2, 0-1 SEC) reached that point after four weeks, and they won’t practice today. They gathered to watch film Sunday — one day earlier than usual — and they’ll return to the practice field Tuesday in preparation for Saturday’s game at 12th-ranked LSU (4-0, 2-0).
“We’re at a point where, usually when you go a certain amount during the season, I think it’s important to give them two days off in a row physically,” Dooley said. “And we’ve reached that point.”
Dooley said his team’s complete lack of depth, and the timing of its schedule, helped him make the decision “probably about a week earlier” than usual. The Vols travel to Georgia after the LSU game, and then they’ll have a week off before hosting top-ranked Alabama and visiting No. 19 South Carolina to cap a potentially brutal October.
“I just felt like this was the right time,” the coach said.
The players weren’t available for comment Sunday, but some of their body language after Saturday’s 32-29, double-overtime win over UAB suggested they probably didn’t mind Dooley’s decision.
“I always feel good when we win,” sophomore safety Prentiss Waggner said. “But I’m also pretty sore and pretty tired.”
Waggner and fellow safety Janzen Jackson played 96 snaps apiece Saturday. Sophomore cornerback Marsalis Teague played 94 snaps, and he would have played two more if not for an injury in the second overtime. Senior linebacker Nick Reveiz played 90 snaps.
“That’s probably my biggest concern,” Dooley said. “That’s just too much. But it’s what we did. The lack of depth puts you in a little but of a pickle there.”
Several players on the other side of the ball would have logged similar time, but the Vols’ offense only ran 61 plays to UAB’s 92 — Waggner, Jackson and Teague also play on several special teams units.
UT entered preseason camp with major depth concerns, and nine players from the start of camp were out of the lineup by the end of the UAB game. The Vols had approximately 60 healthy, eligible scholarship players available by the end of Saturday’s unexpected marathon, including several freshmen they plan to redshirt.
A few surprising problems popped up before Saturday’s game, too. Sophomore weakside linebacker Herman Lathers and junior cornerback Art Evans, both starters, were injured in pregame warm-ups.
Reveiz still agreed with his head coach, though. He said there was “no excuse” for the defense’s woeful tackling performance, especially in the second half.
“I felt like we did a terrible job tackling. We had a lot of missed tackles,” said Reveiz, one of the few defenders praised by Dooley after the game. “That’s something we’re going to have to go work on in practice. I felt like guys were hustling, but we’ve just got to do a better job of wrapping up, grabbing cloth and bringing them to the ground.
“As far as the coverages and busting, that’s stuff that’s going to happen in a game, no doubt. Guys get tired, and fatigue sets in, but at the end of the day, we’ve just got to a better job of focusing in on the task at hand.”
Dooley hopes an altered practice schedule — something he never did at Louisiana Tech — will help the situation.
Taking today off is just the start of Dooley’s plan to lighten up the team’s workload. They’ve got plenty of areas that need improvement, but they don’t want to risk losing enough players to make practice organization more difficult than it’s already been.
“We’ll have to figure out how we structure practice,” Dooley said. “It’s just hard to get a good 2 deep where you can practice everybody and have and a scout team. It takes a lot of numbers to have a 2 deep and a scout team offense and defense.
“It’s essentially having a good, firm 3 deep on your team, and we don’t have that.”
Dooley has two years of NFL experience as an assistant with the Miami Dolphins. He’s seen practices structured around a 53-man active roster and a small practice squad.
That will help “a little bit,” Dooley said.
“But college is a little different than the NFL,” he added. “In the NFL, there’s less player development, and there’s more, ‘Just game plan and get them ready.’ We’ve got to teach guys how to block and tackle, and it’s just hard to do that without a lot of numbers. That’s where its different.
“If you just went to a straight NFL schedule, then it would be a hard time developing these guys into being good players.”
Dooley didn’t give specific injury updates, deferring those responses to Tuesday, when players report back from a day off for closer physical inspections.
Senior wide receiver Gerald Jones could give the Vols a big boost. The cast on his broken hand was removed last week in favor of a splint, and he dressed and ran routes — without catching the ball — late in the week.
The only other injury Dooley specified was Evans’ knee bone bruise. The corner took a helmet to his knee in Saturday’s pregame drills and has been dealing with “a lot of pain,” according to Dooley.
“All those guys, I don’t know,” the coach said. “I’ll know more Tuesday.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesrucker or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.