KNOXVILLE -- As one of the five California natives on Tennessee's football team, Mychal Rivera knows an in-season trip home is essentially impossible.
While some of his teammates took the opportunity provided by the Volunteers' open date to head to their hometowns, the senior tight end found it easy to make the most of some rare free time by simply staying in Knoxville.
"I let my family come and visit me now," he joked Monday morning after Tennessee returned to practice. "I'm used to it now. I'm so focused that I don't let any of that faze me.
"I watched football the whole weekend and relaxed my joints and muscles. I needed that."
Most of the players who spoke to reporters Monday echoed a similar weekend recap: They stayed in and watched the Southeastern Conference's enticing slate of games that began with Mississippi State, the Vols' opponent this Saturday.
"They looked good," right tackle Ja'Wuan James said of the 19th-ranked Bulldogs' 27-14 win at hapless Kentucky.
Left tackle Antonio Richardson made the short drive to Nashville to see his parents. Kicker Michael Palardy, a Florida resident, said the only time he left his room was to get food. The LSU-Florida and Georgia-South Carolina matchups made it easy to stay off one's feet.
When Tennessee returned to its feet for practice Monday, the Vols were more rested than lazy.
"I feel pretty good about how we handled the open date," coach Derek Dooley said. "I feel like we got a lot accomplished and worked them pretty hard early in the week. They came back, took advantage of the two days off and had a real energetic practice today."
"I think we came out energized," Rivera said. "We had more energy because we were rested. Tomorrow we've got to make it a lot better and continue to move on during the week."
Stats (often) don't lie
The open date also was important for Tennessee's defense to identify a problem and solution for the big plays and long runs it's allowed this season. The Vols have allowed 28 plays of 20 or more yards, including six touchdowns of 50 or more yards. Five of those scores were runs.
"There's some trends that you see," Dooley said. "That's where it starts, coaching these guys a little bit better when the ball breaks out on what to do and where to fit. It's being conscious of maybe where we get a little stressed schematically and making sure we don't do too much so we don't make mistakes.
"We've had some really long ones, more than you'd want in a career."
The coach again explained the problem as a combination of misalignments, the inability to get off blocks and struggles with tackling and chasing down players in space, and stopping the run will be a big emphasis this week as Tennessee faces Mississippi State's Ladarius Perkins, the SEC's second-leading rusher.
"We know they want to run the ball," safety Byron Moore said. "They're a real solid football team all around. They just do what they do, and they do it well.
"We feel like we match up well, and we're just looking forward to it."
Dooley admitted he didn't think the Vols would have an all-world defense by this point of the transition to a new scheme and pointed to the second and fourth quarters of the loss to Georgia as examples of the group's capabilities.
"We show a lot of times when we play it right and do it right that we perform well," he said. "That's what we're trying to build on. There's some encouraging signs.
"We're probably a little better than the stats are reflecting, but the stats are who you are."
In the SEC, Tennessee is 13th in total defense, 12th against the run and sixth in pass-efficiency defense.
Saturday in Starkville will be the first time since 2004, when Tennessee won at Ole Miss, the Vols have played a 9 p.m. (EDT) game.
"We'll play you at 12 o'clock at night if we need to," Richardson said. "I'll play it at 5 a.m. if you want me to. Coach, he talks to us and says no matter what it is ... we've got to be ready to play."
While he said the Vols won't start their game-day routine until around noon, Dooley believes the start time won't be a big factor, though it's probably a little tough on the players, who have to sit around in a hotel room all day.
"You've just got to keep your mind in it all day," Rivera said. "When you're in the hotel, if your mind starts to wander, you've got to get right back in your playbook, talk about the game [and] envision the game in your mind. You've just got to stay in game mode."
Dooley said there's a "good chance" freshman LaDarrell McNeil will start against Mississippi State. ... Palardy has regained the field-goal and extra-point duties from Derrick Brodus. ... Dooley said James played "probably his best game" against Georgia. ... The open date gave linebacker Curt Maggitt a chance to rest his turf-toe injury, but it's highly unlikely the sophomore will be 100 percent for the rest of the season.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
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 ...