KNOXVILLE - Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley stressed earlier this week that open dates are what teams make them.
The Volunteers finished the third and final day of practice Thursday, and their third-year coach believed his team made the most of a chance to focus on itself.
"It was good," Dooley said. "We had two really physical practices. They were long, they were hard, they were tough, they were like training camp, and it gave a lot of people an opportunity to grow and develop. I could use a whole other training camp, so it's never enough, but I think we accomplished what we needed to."
The Vols will lift weights and run today before beginning what Dooley called a "48-hour hall pass." Some players will head to their hometowns and visit their families, while others may stay in Knoxville and perhaps study for football or class. While he said his players generally have returned flat after consecutive days off in the past, Dooley acknowledged that the rest and recovery time is important as Tennessee enters the rest of its season.
Dooley hopes his team's "workmanlike" approach to this week pays dividends next Saturday at 20th-ranked Mississippi State.
"I didn't come off any day saying they weren't ready to go, but you know, this team's been that way the whole year," he said. "They're a good group. They're a focused group."
Head start on MSU
Tennessee began preparing for the Bulldogs on Thursday. Mississippi State is coming off its own open date and visits Kentucky on Saturday. After UT pitted starters against starters on Tuesday and Wednesday, the multicolored scout-team jerseys returned Thursday.
"It was like a Monday practice," Dooley said, "just kind of introducing what they do, their fronts, their base runs, their throws, their personnel, their [special] teams. We'll come back on Monday and go get after it pretty good."
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said after Wednesday's practice that he believed the best way for quarterback Tyler Bray to learn how to avoid fourth-quarter mistakes is by experience. The junior turned the ball over three times as Tennessee was attempting to tie fifth-ranked Georgia last week.
"I expect him to come out of there a lot better than he was," Chaney said. "We expect him to do that. Like he said, he'll learn a lot and we'll keep moving on."
Bray's crunch-time experience before the Georgia game was limited to overtime of the 2010 Music City Bowl, in which he threw an interception, the game-tying drive he led against Vanderbilt last season and his year's Florida game, when he completed just one final-period pass.
The biggest lesson Bray said he learned was to live another down. He forced a throw and delivered a poor ball with pressure coming on one interception and uncharacteristically tried to scramble and fumbled on first down inside Georgia's 30-yard line.
"There were times in the Georgia game I forced it, and it cost us the game," he said. "First down, instead of throwing a jump ball and getting it picked off, just [throw] it out of bounds. [Get] to second down and third down."
Left guard Dallas Thomas (dinged up) and freshman cornerback Daniel Gray (concussion-like symptoms) were held out of Thursday's practice, while linebacker Curt Maggitt continued to rest his nagging turf toe injury. Despite some speculation he had moved to tight end, 6-foot-5, 232-pound freshman Jason Croom worked with the receivers Thursday. Fellow receivers Zach Rogers and Jacob Carter wore noncontact jerseys, and Carter didn't practice.