KNOXVILLE – Coach Butch Jones was quick to emphasize that a bye week doesn’t equal an off week for Tennessee over the next few days.
The Vols will get their rest later in the week and over the weekend, but for a team still learning Jones’ system and mastering basic technique, the coaching staff views this as a work week.
“There are so many goals that we want to accomplish this week,” said Jones, who just missed his first signature win at UT in a 34-31 overtime loss to Georgia. “First of all is individual improvement, everybody in our football program getting better – team improvement, our execution, our special teams, offense and defense and getting back healthy.
"It has been a grind, six weeks, and then a long training camp. This bye week serves a number of purposes. I thought we had a good approach [Tuesday].”
And those six straight games – three of them against ranked opponents – have taken a toll on the team’s health, something the bye week could help with. The Vols have the flexibility to rest some players who have been nursing nagging injuries and possibly get some players back when they return to the field on Oct. 19 against South Carolina.
Offensive linemen Tiny Richardson and Alex Bullard both got the day off Tuesday, but Jones said it was a precautionary move and neither should be in danger of missing any games. Jones also expects to get running back Marlin Lane (foot), who missed the Georgia game, back against the Gamecocks.
Two other injured players – receiver Devrin Young (hand) and defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry (knee) – could also return to the practice field by next week, though Jones didn’t say if he expects them to play in the next game or not.
For the healthy players, Tuesday was a chance to work through on fundamentals and to rehearse situational plays. The receivers went over basic routes while working on tucking the ball away after making a catch. The team also went through extensive special teams work, working on situations such as onside kick recoveries, fielding pooch kickoffs and punting from their own end zone.
"This week we're all about focusing on our fundamentals – going back and really working on our habits we've developed, working on our fundamentals that we may have strayed away from and also trying to get a jump on South Carolina,” said quarterback Justin Worley.
Added defensive tackle Danny O’Brien on the goals of this week, “Just really perfecting our technique, stuff like that. I think we're going to get more of a South Carolina look tomorrow, and I know the D-line, we were in there studying South Carolina's film. It's not like, just because we weren't repping it out there, doesn't mean we're not getting ready for them. We'll be ready for those guys."
Howard discusses costly fumble: There was perhaps no more of a gut-wrenching play for the Vols on Saturday than receiver Pig Howard’s fumble at the 1 yard-line as he attempted to stretch out and hit the pylon for what would’ve been the go-ahead score in overtime.
Howard, who was the team’s leading receiver with 70 yards and the second-leading rusher with 46 yards against Georgia, said he’s received an outpouring of support since that play and that he appreciates all the positive messages.
“A lot of people have saluted me on that play,” he said. “It was clear that I was trying to give all my effort and make a touchdown. I have just been getting all positive talk. No negative.”
Jones publically stuck up for Howard after the game as well, saying that the sophomore was just trying to make a play for his team and that the Vols wouldn’t have even been in overtime without his strong play throughout regulation.
• Out: WR Devrin Young, TE Alex Ellis, DT Trevarris Saulsberry, TE Justin Meredith, TE Joseph Ayres, WR Ryan Jenkins, QB Nathan Peterman, RB Marlin Lane, LG Alex Bullard, LT Tiny Richardson
• Limited: RB Rajion Neal, TE Brendan Downs, TE A.J. Branisel, S Brian Randolph
• The Vols started practice off with the circle of life drill where two players go one-on-one and try to knock the other out of the ring. Linebacker Curt Maggitt made easy work of tight end Woody Quinn. Linebacker Kenny Bynum also had a good rep against running back Tom Smith.
• With Bullard and Richardson out, the offensive line did some shuffling. James Stone and Mack Crowder were both working at center, Marcus Jackson was working at left guard, Ja’Wuan James at left tackle, Kyler Kerbyson at right guard and Zach Fulton at right tackle.
• Jones called running back Alden Hill “Mr. Personal Foul” at one point in practice, referencing the taunting call Hill earned on the opening kickoff against Georgia. That’s a little ironic since Jones himself was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct during Saturday’s game.
• The wide receivers, as a unit, have come extremely far since last spring and early this fall. They went through two periods today with very few drops and looked to be running much crisper routes. There’s a lot of peer coaching and encouragement as well. Junior Jacob Carter, especially, is one of the players who regularly instructs the younger receivers on technique and route running.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga