Oct. 8, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - After spending time working on self-improvement and focusing on the fundamentals during its open week, Tennessee turned its attention to unbeaten and No. 19 Mississippi State on Monday.
Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley was excited about the improvement his squad was able to make over the course of last week and happy that the players handled the break in the right way, coming back stronger, rested and ready to move forward.
"I feel pretty good about how we handled the open date," Dooley said. "I feel like we got a lot accomplished. We worked them pretty hard early in the week and they came back, took advantage of the two days off and had a really energetic practice today."
The Vols know that they have a challenge on their hands come Saturday in Starkville, but are looking forward to the opportunity to get back on the field and prove themselves.
"We are obviously playing a good football team," Dooley said. "They have won seven in a row, they know how to win and they are playing with a lot of confidence. They have a lot of good players on both sides of the football but the thing that kind of sticks out the most is that they play with great effort and toughness every snap and they are very sound.
"Their plus-11 takeaway margin is representative of how they play. They protect the football on offense, they prey on the mistakes of their opponents and they capitalize on them. It is going to be a big step for our team to go down there. It is important that we are ready early, so we have to go out and perform early better, better than what we did in Athens. Then we obviously need to learn how to finish the game. We'll see, it's a big step for the team."
While visiting teams aren't exactly welcomed into any SEC venue, there is something a little more unique about Davis Wade Stadium. According to Dooley, however, home-field advantage only comes into play if you let it and the Vols are hoping their experiences in similar situations over the last few years will allow them to overcome it.
"Of course, the cowbells make it a little different, the 55,000 plus the cowbells," Dooley said. "They are all rowdy, they all are. The home-field advantage usually occurs when the home team is playing really well and the visiting team is a little bit on its heels. You saw it in some of these games on Saturday. When you go out there and you play well, it diminishes the value of the home-field advantage.
"We've seen it in our stadium. When we are playing well and the other team is on its heels a little bit, the home-field advantage is huge, but if the home team is not playing well or the other team is really playing well, it's not as big a deal. Probably the most important thing is having a good, veteran squad who can manage it and we should be ok on that. We were in a pretty hostile environment two weeks ago and we maintained our poise for four quarters. We struggled early and that is why we have to do a better job of being ready early."
After coming close to beating both Florida and Georgia earlier this season, Tennessee is hoping it can use what it learned in those losses to break through and get its first win over a ranked team since 2009.
"They have never really been uptight or nervous but there comes a point where we are learning these lessons each week, let's convert them into some wins," Dooley said. "We all know we need to do that. This is a good opportunity on the road against a good football team that has a lot of swagger right now. They are 7-0 in their last seven games. I don't care who you play, that is hard to do."
LATE NIGHT LIGHTS
For the first time since 2004, the Vols will take part in a game scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. ET.
The last time the Vols had such a late start, the majority of today's Vols were pre-teens and it is likely they were already dreaming when the 2004 Vols kicked off.
The 2004 game also took place in the state of Mississippi as the Vols defeated Ole Miss, 21-17.
There was some surprise amongst the team when they heard of the late start.
"When we first heard about it we were like `whoa 9 o'clock'," said Ja'Wuan James. "We forgot about the time change. We are going to just take it as another game, it is a great opportunity, people will be watching on television, we will go out and bring our energy and create our own energy down there."
The Vols will look to build that energy throughout the day, as they go through their weekly pregame rituals.
"We have a routine that we do for all times," said Vols Head Coach Derek Dooley. "We won't really get our day started probably until lunch time. We will eat breakfast and all that but you just kind of lay around. Then there is a little routine you do based on kickoff and we'll stick to that. The kick time is a big deal for the fans to me, but [not] for the players and the coaches. You should be ready; there is no excuse for not being ready."
Senior Prentiss Waggner is just rolling with the punches as it pertains to this week's game, echoing the sentiment of his coach.
"It's something we really don't think about," said Waggner. "We're going to be pretty preoccupied all that time. We'll probably go see a movie on Friday, so I'm looking forward to seeing a good movie on Friday just like normal, get our meetings in, a good nap, and game time will be here before you know it."
Tiny Richardson says game time doesn't matter to him. He is good to go, and amped to go whenever.
"It does not matter, we can play at midnight if we need to," said Richardson. "I will play at 5 a.m. if we need to. Coach talks to us saying no matter when it is rain, snow; no matter it is late at night we have to be ready to play whenever."
Richardson also has this advice for his teammates.
"Just hone in and meditate on your job and when it is time to play, it is time to play."
Just business as usual for the Vols.
MORE TIME FOR McCULLERS
Junior college transfer Daniel McCullers had his best game as a Vol -- by a wide margin -- in the loss at Georgia. The mammoth lineman had a career high eight tackles after making just four total stops in his first four games in orange.
McCullers continues to refine his game and will see more playing time according to his head coach.
"I think he is improving every week," Dooley said of McCullers. "Our challenge now is to see how much we can play him before he hits a dip because he is a good football player. We need to keep amping up his plays each week no matter what the offense does. We are learning more about him and some of the other new guys on defense."
McCullers saw limited time against teams than ran certain formations on offense, most notable the spread. He did not play a single snap on defense against Akron before seeing major minutes against Georgia.
The Vols are looking to involve McCullers more in pass-rush situations and he is up for the challenge.
"Being a pass rusher in nickel is a big key," said McCullers. "So I have to work on the pass rush routes. At first they didn't want me on nickel and right now they do. I am just going to work for the team and do what the team wants."
Dooley thinks McCullers can add a different dimension for the Vols' defensive unit.
"He brings a different kind of pass rush because he can push the pocket which is just as effective sometimes," said the coach. "It's not like we have any sack-masters up there. We're not taking any pass-rush specialists out of the game if we put him in."
McCullers is driven to be the best teammate he can be and play his role to be the best of his ability.
"I am progressing pretty good, just working with John Palermo every day. We are learning new moves that go into the games," said McCullers. "Just continue to work hard in practice. Just give my all in practice and then the way I practice should get me more time. So that is what I am going to continue to do."
The Vols were issued a hall pass from their coach Derek Dooley this weekend.
They were given 48 hours to do whatever they wanted, before reporting back to campus Sunday night.
Most of the Vols just used it as a time to relax and catch up on some football.
"I basically watched all of Saturday's college games," said Prentiss Waggner. "I had fun doing it."
Some people took the opportunity to see their family, like Tiny Richardson who headed home to Nashville for a weekend with his parents.
Mychal Rivera recharged around his apartment, looking to pick up some extra energy for this week's game against Mississippi State.
"I watched TV, slept, and rested my body," said Rivera while laughing. "I think everyone handled the bye week really well. The guys that went out of town were relaxing. Coach Dooley really stressed not making the bye week a week were we come back more tired than we would have been had we played a game. I think the whole team relaxed and got off of their feet."
Offensive lineman Ja'Wuan James also used the off week to kick back and relax.
"We had a great week of practices, three practices and we got Saturday and Sunday off," said James. "It felt good to sit around and watch all the games Saturday."
"That was a much needed thing as a team. I think everyone took it to our advantage and didn't abuse it or anything so I think it helped a lot."
One Vol who put in extra work in the film room was receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who said he spent the weekend, "just watching film and trying to get better every day."