KNOXVILLE - The University of Tennessee football team returned to practice Thursday for the first time in nearly three weeks, and coaches and players were surprised at the Volunteers' relatively low rust level.
"Wasn't as bad as I thought," coach Derek Dooley said. "I think the conditioning part got them - a lot of them were getting winded, and part of that was probably we were indoors and part of that is we hadn't gone at that tempo - but as far as the polish on the football part, we picked it up pretty good."
That was good news for the Vols (6-6), who will play North Carolina (7-5) in Nashville on Dec. 30 in the Music City Bowl.
Dooley said the top two at each position were injury-free, but sophomore All-SEC safety Janzen Jackson (undisclosed family reasons) and sophomore backup tailback David Oku (death of loved ones) were excused from the two-hour workout.
The coach said every player passed at least six credit hours this semester, meaning that no Vols will miss the bowl with academic deficiencies.
"We were all clear," Dooley said. "I don't want to say it was a good semester academically because we passed six hours. Come on. But I'm getting the academic report when all the grades are in, [and] it looks like nobody is going to be academically ineligible."
Still, Dooley conceded it was nice to get the team "back on the grass."
"Had good spirit out there," he added. "They were hitting. That's to be expected. This is kind of the first quarter of four. So one of four practices is down, and they did a good job today, but the real test is going to be when they wake up tomorrow, because their bodies will be more sore than they're used to.
"We've got to get back in hitting shape, and the only way to keep doing that is to keep hitting."
The Vols will practice twice today - in the morning and afternoon - and again Saturday morning, so physical challenges are expected for a group that spent the past three weeks lifting, running and working in what Dooley called "about five ... mandatory" noncontact drills in small groups.
"For the first day back, I thought we played tremendous," freshman quarterback Tyler Bray said. "We didn't have too many problems. No [bad] snaps, no fumbles, no interceptions. I thought we played well.
"It was a good start, I think."
Said senior wide receiver Gerald Jones: "We started off a little rusty, honestly, when we were throwing routes and stuff. Everybody got warmed up and got a little loose, though, and after that we looked pretty good."
Sophomore offensive tackle Dallas Thomas said the line had been getting together to work on drills and backs and receivers did 7-on-7 work during the off time.
"We were on it from the beginning because me and the O-line ... we didn't want to just sit in the house and do nothing playing video games, so we just all got up and come over here and did a couple of drills on our own to keep it together," Thomas said.
"It feels good to get back in the flow of things, 'cause we had like a week and a half off, and it just feels good to be back. We did a lot of good things out there, so we want to build on it and keep it going for tomorrow's two-a-day."
Crowder, Downs join in
Two of UT's January enrollees, former Bristol Tennessee High teammates Mack Crowder and Brendan Downs, joined the Vols for Thursday's practice.
Dooley hoped to get Atlanta-area receiver Vincent Dallas on the field, too, but his paperwork wasn't finished in time.
"They can't [practice] until they get all the paperwork academically," Dooley said. "Everybody graduates and takes their tests at different times. Some of them, they don't graduate until January, so there's no real holdup except for the school process."
Crowder, a center, and Downs, a tight end, received generally positive reviews.
"He's going to be a nice addition to this team," Bray said as he watched Crowder work on the side in post-practice drills.
Dooley and several players laughed at Downs' ill-fitting equipment, though.
"Their eyes were like this," Dooley said, opening his eyes as wide as he could. "The helmet looks bad; the shoulder pads. This is the benefit of [getting them here early]. The first thing you've got to do is look like a player. The helmet, the air's leaking, the chin strap's too tight, it's beautiful."
Added Bray: "I helped Downs buckle his chin strap. I remember having to do that as the practice was going on. I helped him out a little bit, helped him take the pressure off. It was too tight. They rushed him out here, and he didn't get to adjust his stuff. It was funny."
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.