Following an embarrassing 41-14 loss at Georgia on Oct. 9, the Tennessee football team returned to the practice field this week during the team's only bye of the season.
Coach Derek Dooley wanted the week of practice to be very physical and very competitive, while working on fundamentals and refusing to game plan for the team's next opponent, one of the luxuries the bye week allows the Vols.
"(We had) two good days of work, got a lot accomplished and got a little better as a team," the first-year coach said after Wednesday's practice. "I don't know how much, but we got a little better, and that's what our objective was. I think every player got a little better in some fashion, and tomorrow (Thursday) we'll turn our attention to our next opponent and start working on them a little bit."
One area the Vols were hoping to utilize during the two-week break was integrating more freshmen into the playing rotation. During one drive in the fourth quarter against the Bulldogs, UT had as many as seven true freshmen on the field on offense. Dooley refuted criticism that getting younger players more playing time was preparing for the future and not necessary about winning games this year.
"We are going to try and go out and win the next game," Dooley said. "I'm not into this big-picture thinking that everybody else is. We aren't here to win the (SEC) championship, we are here to win the next game. We aren't here to try and lay the foundation. We are here to win the next game.
"Now, we are laying a foundation by the values we are instilling. That's what we are doing, but our objective is to win the next game. That's what we are going to keep doing week-to-week and at the end of the year, we look back and see how were we. That's all you can do."
Laying that foundation still includes the team's seniors, many of whom have been through three head coaches during their careers at UT. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said he has the utmost respect for college athletes that can make it through a multi-year span and still come to practice every day taking to coaching and wanting to get better.
"I don't know what the class number, but if you look at the seniors who are here from that original class, the number's very small I would assume," Wilcox said of the team's 2007 recruiting class, which was ranked No. 3 in the nation by Rivals.com. "It takes a special guy, even if there is no coaching turnover, to make it through and have success through that four- or five-year span. To go through what they've gone through, it's kind of one of those deals, I'm definitely impressed by the way those guys have handled themselves, but when you meet them and see what type of kids they are, it doesn't surprise you. I have empathy but not sympathy for them, and that's how we treat them."
Senior outside linebacker LaMarcus Thompson is one senior on the team who has faced a that adversity. Thompson is glad the Vols get a bye week before playing Alabama, especially after the former No. 1 team in the country suffered its first loss in 19 games last Saturday at South Carolina.
"They are going to be very hungry coming off a loss, because a loss hurts," Thompson said. "Especially when you're a team that's winning and winning, and all of a sudden, wow, you get hit with a loss. It kind of brings you back down to earth. They are going to come with it and come hard, because they are a good Alabama football team and of course they want to get back to that winning streak."
Had the Vols played this weekend, they would have likely been down three starters. Defensive tackles Montori Hughes (ankle), left tackle Dallas Thomas (ankle) and kicker Daniel Lincoln (quad) were all held out of practice this week and will be reevaluated on Monday.
The Vols will play Alabama on Oct. 23 in Neyland Stadium at 7 p.m. and will be televised on the ESPN network.