Tennessee Vols welcome extra week to heal, build

Tennessee Vols welcome extra week to heal, build

October 8th, 2013 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Justin Coleman of Tennessee

Justin Coleman of Tennessee

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee has an extra week to sit around and wonder about all the what-if scenarios from its close loss to Georgia last Saturday.

The Volunteers would be better served to build off the near-miss as they head into the second half of the season.

As expected, the Vols are 3-3 heading into the first of their two open dates, and they need the extra week to give some players some much-needed rest, develop more depth at certain positions and get a head start on 14th-ranked South Carolina, which visits Knoxville on Oct. 19.

"We did a lot of positive things," cornerback Justin Coleman said following the overtime loss to the Bulldogs, "and we feel like we could have won and we could have that victory.

"We're just going to keep grinding and stay together as a team."

The players who spoke to the media following the Georgia loss seemed more upbeat than one might expect from a team that just suffered an emotionally draining loss, and the vibe from the Vols and first-year coach Butch Jones was mostly positive.

The key, though, will be how Tennessee builds upon its performance.

"I think you've got to kind of move past it," tailback Rajion Neal said. "You've got to believe in your coaches. You've got to kind of put your head down and let it go and try not to dwell in the past.

"Take a peek back there and remind yourself of things you don't want to do, but I think the biggest thing is don't dwell on it and stay under the coaches."

At Cincinnati the past three years, Jones was 4-1 following open dates, with the only loss coming at West Virginia in 2010, when the Bearcats went 4-8. In 2011 and 2012, Cincinnati beat Louisville, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech following open dates.

Tennessee, Arkansas and Vanderbilt were the only SEC teams to play at least six straight games before hitting an open date this season.

"Fortunately, this week we're off," linebacker Dontavis Sapp said, "so we can go back to work, get some guys healthy and snap and clear.

"This week off will be good for us," he added.

After getting a sense of his team's mental and physical state, Jones eased up during last week's preparations, but it's unclear if he'll drill the Vols hard the next two days.

"We were so banged up we didn't even go full pads [last week]," he said. "We went shells and vests on Wednesday and Thursday, and that's unlike us. I knew Wednesday our kids came and had basically a pads practice in vests in terms of body position and finishing plays.

"They're learning how to practice, they're learning the standard, they're learning the expectation and they're buying in and they're seeing it."

The Vols already are relying on a handful of true freshmen, and more new guys may get the chance to increase their roles with extra work this week. The main targets areas are linebacker and cornerback, where starters Sapp, A.J. Johnson, Cam Sutton and Coleman rarely come off the field.

After the game, Jones mentioned the need to get Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who's been Tennessee's best special-teams player and blocked a punt Saturday, more involved at linebacker, and an extra week will help get cornerbacks Michael Williams and Riyahd Jones closer to playing as both come off injuries.

"They help us in everything: special teams, offense, defense -- it don't matter," Coleman said. "The freshmen have been making big plays. They've been helping us throughout the year, and we're going to need them."

Though they did some good things against Georgia, the Vols ultimately did lose the game, and Tennessee recently has experienced a similar near-miss situation.

In Derek Dooley's first season as coach in 2010, Tennessee went to LSU and infamously had a win erased by having 13 players on the field as the Tigers botched the game's final moments. In the end, that game, and the November rally to a bowl that year, didn't materialize into a springboard for the program.

This team faces a tougher road to bowl eligibility than that team. Missouri, which hosts Tennessee Nov. 3, is 5-0 and nationally ranked heading to Georgia this week. Auburn, also under a first-year coach in Gus Malzahn, is 4-1, though the Tigers have played just one game away from home.

In the Vols' locker room after Saturday's game, Sapp delivered a message to his team.

"Just to keep our heads up," kicker Michael Palardy said. "It was a tough loss. It was a heartbreaker, but we've got a lot of more ball left to play in the season. That's kind of the biggest thing.

"We just showed we can toe-to-toe with anybody in the country, some of the best teams in the country. We've just got to go out and do it. We had a great week of preparation this week, and we've got to go in the next couple of weeks and have the same preparation, if not better."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com