published Friday, November 11th, 2011

Young Vols battle grind

UT head coach Derek Dooley instructs Daniel Hood during a practice at Haslam Field.
UT head coach Derek Dooley instructs Daniel Hood during a practice at Haslam Field.
Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Daniel Hood is in his third season in the Tennessee football program, though the redshirt sophomore's 6-foot-4, 293-pound probably feels like it's in its first.

The defensive tackle's bumps, bruises, nicks and soreness, along with the countless hours spent each week in the training room, can attest to that.

"Probably 12 to 14 hours a week in there," Hood said of his weekly treatment sessions. "I'm pretty sure they hate me as much as I don't like them. Just going in there and doing the little things -- the cold tub, the little infrared to heat your muscles up to keep them in shape, a bunch of little strengthening stuff for the little muscles -- they're one of the best training staffs in America. They're able to help us stay out there."

The Volunteers play their seventh game in as many weeks Saturday night at eighth-ranked Arkansas, and the wear and tear certainly has taken its toll on a UT team that's played a tough schedule in the physically demanding Southeastern Conference. That's the case with most teams across the country, but for the Vols' handful of freshmen and first-year players, staying mentally and physically sharp and fighting through soreness and fatigue becomes important.

"I think it's part of football, and you've just to keep right on the grind," said offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. "It's the grit that makes you who you are as a football player. You've got to fight through all that and keep right on going."

Said receivers coach Charlie Baggett: "It's the same way in the NFL with a 16-game schedule. You've just got to prepare mentally a little bit to understand that it's a lot different from high school. It's a much longer season, and I think that's the main thing, just mentally getting them to stay focused."

The younger players aren't alone fighting the season's grind. Senior linebacker Austin Johnson has practiced all week in a noncontact jersey with a sleeve on his lower left leg and a large brace on his sore right elbow. Sundays and Fridays are generally the Vols' light days, and Mondays are off days. At this late point in his career, Johnson knows how to make the most of the recovery time.

"These young guys, they're used to high school where you're playing a few guys that aren't really this tough and just going home and laying down and doing it all over again," said senior defensive lineman Malik Jackson. "When you get to this level, you've got to take care of your body and go in the training room and do the small stuff. That's what I'm trying to tell these guys. It's a physical game when you get in the SEC, and you've really got to take care of your body or else it will break."

That's something tailback Marlin Lane has learned in his freshman season. Lane hasn't played a full season since his sophomore year of high school. He tore ligaments in his left knee during the playoffs as a junior and came back later in his senior year. That knee, along with the low level of durability typical of a freshman tailback, slowed him last month.

"It's a lot different [than high school]," he said. "I go to treatment three times every day, [and] I'm getting up at 6 o'clock in the morning. It's more treatment I've done in a couple months than I did in like five years."

Battling through the physical damage, though, is just part of it for the freshmen and junior college transfers who also have to adjust to more rigorous work. Most at one point or another hit the proverbial "freshman wall" in which they more or less disappear. Some hit the wall within the first month of preseason training camp and get off to slow starts, while others encounter it during the middle or latter part of the regular season.

UT's seen both kinds this season, and coach Derek Dooley and his assistants have to do what they can to push those players through it.

"Probably the best way is to give them a couple of weeks off every four or five weeks," Dooley quipped. "They tend to do that anyway, so it may be better to say, 'Get out of here for a couple of weeks; we'll see you.' But we can't afford to do that. I don't know any other way to do it.

"You have to talk to them. The biggest thing they have to do is they have to understand it's normal how they feel, they're not going to feel this way next year at this time because their body will be used to it and adjusted to it. When they feel bad, they think they've got to shut it down, but if you keep pushing, your body will adjust and you'll feel good again."

Outside of the season-ending knee injuries to receiver Justin Hunter and strong safety Brent Brewer and quarterback Tyler Bray's broken thumb, the Vols have, for the most part, remained fairly healthy. Freshman linebacker Curt Maggitt missed the South Carolina loss with a calf injury, special-teamer Raiques Crump missed the Buffalo game with an illness and freshman tailback and return specialist Devrin Young missed the season's first month with a broken collarbone suffered right before camp started.

"We've had two terrible, unfortunate injuries that hit our team, but other than that, we've been pretty fortunate from an injury standpoint everywhere," Dooley said. "There's a lot of teams that have lost, and usually you lose a little more than what we've lost. What's unfortunate is who we've lost. We've been pretty fortunate across the board on injuries this year. Knock on wood -- we've still got three weeks."

Those three weeks in November could turn into two more weeks in December and a bowl game of the Vols can fight through the grind.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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