KNOXVILLE -- Coach Lane Kiffin adamantly stated several times Thursday night that early-morning arrests of Tennessee freshmen Janzen Jackson, Nu'Keese Richardson and Mike Edwards had "nothing to do" with the Volunteers who showed up for football practice.
"That's got nothing to do with what's going on with these guys," Kiffin said. "We needed to have a good practice today to prepare for a big-time game, and I thought the guys came out today and had a really good practice. I thought they were very sharp, very focused.
"Good intensity out here. We still have a lot of work to do before the game."
Despite Kiffin's words, the reality is that all three players were in line to suit up Saturday at Ole Miss, and Jackson and Richardson figured to play important roles.
Jackson had started every game this season at free safety -- and mostly played well -- until missing last Saturday's win over Memphis with what Kiffin called an "administrative" issue. Still, the safety practiced with the starters Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and he said Wednesday night that he was ready to return to the lineup.
Redshirt freshman Prentiss Waggner started in Jackson's place last week, and freshman Darren Myles Jr. also played the position before leaving the game with hip and back injuries. Myles returned to practice Thursday but still had a slight limp.
"The hip seemed to be the major thing," Kiffin said. "It tightened up on him during the game. We didn't notice it for a couple of plays, and then we noticed it on kickoff coverage and pulled him out after that.
"He was moving around a little bit today. We'll see."
Lane Kiffin said Waggner and Myles performed "just OK" against Memphis. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said the duo "did a good job."
"Again, they haven't played a whole lot, but they're getting better," Monte Kiffin added. "Every day in practice, they're getting a little bit better. They all get better every week in practice; the whole defense does. The whole thing is ... we haven't got a lot of experience back there. The only way you get experience is to play and play and play, but we're just really, really young.
"We're not just young because this a new system. We're also young because we have so many young guys playing."
The elder Kiffin said he'd prefer to keep versatile junior Dennis Rogan at cornerback, but he wouldn't hesitate to move him back to safety if needed. UT has better depth at cornerback, even without Edwards, and Rogan played some safety against Memphis to give the young corners more experience.
"I don't care who's playing," Monte said. "I just want them to play good. I'm going to coach them that way, and they're going to play to the best of their darn ability."
Richardson's absence would leave the Vols without one of their most explosive receivers, but offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said senior Quintin Hancock's recent return means depth shouldn't be a problem at that position.
"Those kids have been rolling on all year," Chaney said. "Most of those kids have played about 25, 30 snaps a game, so we're not too concerned with the depth there. We're fine. We can go double tight (ends) and handle it that way, too, so we're comfortable there.
"Depth is not an issue with us right now. We're fine."
Coaches said the Vols practiced well Thursday. A large post-practice prayer circle and larger media presence were Thursday's most noticeable practice differences.
Players don't speak with reporters on Thursdays and Fridays, but Lane Kiffin said the team was "very sharp, very focused with good intensity."
"It's always about the team," the head coach continued. "It's always about focus. Football is about adversity, and life's about adversity, so no matter what happens with our guys on the field or off the field, it's always, 'How do you deal with adversity? How do you take the next step? How do you improve? How do you learn from it?'"
Asked if these Vols were strong enough to put the distractions aside and play well at Ole Miss, Kiffin said, "I don't know that."
"Whenever we've had adversity in games, for the most part, we've started to perform better," he added. "There's been some games early on when we didn't perform well after adversity, but lately we have. We've responded better."
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