Sept. 16, 2009
BY DREW EDWARDS
Tailback David Oku wants to experience it for himself.
Wide receiver Nu'Keese Richardson will do his best to tune it out.
Janzen Jackson admits he's a little nervous.
Whatever the approach heading into Saturday's 3:30 p.m. kickoff (TV: CBS) against No. 1 Florida in The Swamp, Tennessee's freshmen will have to grapple with a loud and hostile crowd.
And they're not ready yet.
"Well, they're not yet," UT coach Lane Kiffin said on Tuesday. "We've got a long week ahead of us, and we've got a lot of work to do with them. Anytime freshmen play it's tough, especially when you go into a big-time rivalry game, a big-time atmosphere like this will be."
Safety Eric Berry is the only current Vols player who started as a true freshman in Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, where the Vols have won just twice (2001 and 2003) in their last 11 trips. During his only trip, a 59-20 loss in 2007, Berry returned his first career interception 96 yards for a touchdown against Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.
That play is an old standby on Berry's highlight reel, but the junior remembers his first SEC road game more for a play he didn't make. Before his touchdown return, Berry mistimed his jump and missed a chance to intercept a pass.
"Seeing how I got beat on a deep ball before that, I pretty much was focused on that more than the interception for the touchdown," Berry said.
Two weeks later during an open date, Berry visited with his high school coach, who worked with his former star to correct the mistakes he'd made against the Gators.
"The same situation came up against Georgia, and I actually intercepted it in the end zone," Berry said. "That was one of the proud moments that I had. It wasn't the fact that the interception I got on (Tebow) and returned, it was the fact that I learned from my mistakes."
So far this season, the Vols have played 11 true freshmen. Two of those players - receiver Marsalis Teague and Jackson - have started games. Richardson has returned punts through the first two games, and Oku has returned kickoffs.
None of them, though, have been on the road in college.
"I hear talk about it every now and then," said Richardson, who initially committed to play at Florida. "To me, it's nothing I can't handle. It's people, noise. I just feel like it's another game."
It's still tough for first-year players, though, Berry said.
"It can affect you, coming from a freshman standpoint," Berry said. "I did make a few plays down there, but I did give up a couple also. Once you mess up on a play or something happens, you've got to learn how to keep moving, let that play go because the fans are going to keep messing with you about it. That's how they are. You just have to keep focused on the game and focus on what you have to do."
That focus began during Monday's practice and will continue through the final horn Saturday, Kiffin said.
"Crowd noise obviously helps. We'll do that twice this week on both sides of the ball," he said. "We'll develop a specific plan for what our guys are going to do, what our expectations are for them, not try to make them do everything.
"And really work very hard on Saturday during the game keeping them calm, keeping them focused on what's at hand and keeping them worried about what they can control. Don't worry about things you can't control."
One of the things Berry hopes he can control is how the freshmen prepare for their first road game. That counts double for Jackson, who could start his second game of the season Saturday depending on UT's injury situation in the secondary, too.
"I'm going to just try to settle (Jackson) down before the game because before the game he gets real quiet," Berry said. "That whole Friday and Saturday, he rarely says a word. I'm going to probably slip a few jokes in there, just tell him it's going to be all right. You can't really let those emotions get a hold of you. I feel like he probably will be nervous, just like I will be.
"After the kickoff, I feel like he's going to be back to himself. We just have to have a little talk with the freshmen and let them know what we'll be in for when we go down there because it is a different type of game when you do go away for your first time."