If you can’t stand the heat … stay out of Neyland Stadium this weekend.
With forecasters predicting a high of 88 degrees on Saturday, Tennessee and Western Kentucky could face sweltering conditions when they collide at 12:21 on Shields-Watkins Field.
The Vol response: Bring it on. Tennessee’s players believe the strenuous workouts they endured during the offseason have made them virtually immune to heat and humidity.
“I feel like this is what preseason conditioning is for: when you have games like this, where you know it’s going to be hot and you know you’re going to have to get a lot of snaps,” senior center James Stone said. “That’s why we’re focusing on conditioning at the end of practice, as well. You know (taxing weather) is coming, and that’s why you put in that time in the summer.”
On the heels of an offseason that included running 110-yard dashes 52 times one evening at Neyland Stadium and swimming with Navy Seals at the Student Aquatic Center on another occasion, the Vols are convinced they’ll be the fresher team in the fourth quarter each Saturday. That gives them a mental edge.
“It does a lot,” sophomore safety Brian Randolph said. “We know how to play when we’re tired. We’re not going to panic if we get a little winded while we’re out there. That’s really going to help us.”
Conversely, the Hilltoppers are likely to feel a bit discouraged if the opposing sideline exhibits considerably more energy and enthusiasm in the second half.
“I can see how that would psychologically mess with the other team,” Randolph said, “if they see we’re not breathing as hard as they are.”
Further building Tennessee's stamina is the fact it runs a no-huddle offense and practices at a blistering pace in hopes of getting 80 to 90 snaps per game, instead of the usual 60. It’s almost as if the Vols squeeze a three-hour workout into a two-hour time frame.
“Sometimes I feel like we squeeze five (hours) into a two-hour practice,” senior defensive lineman Daniel Hood said with a laugh. “It’s good that we do that, though, because when we play teams that huddle we’ll be out there jumping around.”
Although the Vols trained diligently under conditioning coach Ron McKeefery in 2012, they say successor Dave Lawson has pushed them even harder in 2013. As a result, they believe their stamina is way ahead of previous seasons.
“We’re a lot better than we were last year at this time,” Hood said. “That’s a credit to Coach Lawson and his conditioning program, plus the tempo they (offense) play at.”
Tennessee lost several games in 2012 because it faded in the second half after playing competitively for two or three quarters. New head coach Butch Jones is determined that won’t happen in 2013. Following a particularly grueling August practice he explained: “These lessons we’re learning right now will carry us throughout the course of the season. What we’re going through right now is how you win football games in the fourth quarter.”
Whenever he catches a player coasting in a drill Jones will bark at him via microphone loudly enough for everyone at practice to hear. Assistant coaches occasionally feel the sting of the head man’s sharp tongue, as well. The message is clear: Go hard or go home.
“It’s not a feeling as much as a mindset,” senior offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James said. “All coaches preach effort but these coaches live it.”
As if being humiliated on the practice field isn’t enough, Jones often ridicules a low-effort player again at the next team gathering.
“If you’re not running after the ball on a play, if you’re not sprinting, if you’re not looking to pancake a guy, you’ll be exposed in a team meeting,” James said. “He’ll embarrass you. Nobody wants to be That Guy on the board in the meeting room with everybody laughing…. I don’t like getting embarrassed, so I go out there and play hard.”
|Tennessee coach Butch Jones has created a practice atmosphere that figures to be much more grueling than any gameday.|
Jones’ tactics seem to be working. Junior cornerback Justin Coleman notes significant improvement in Tennessee’s conditioning and stamina over the past seven months.
“In the spring everybody was out of shape a little bit,” he recalled, “but everybody got better. Everybody’s ready to make things happen. We’re going to be ready for the games late. Our mentality is going to carry us through a lot. At the end of games they’re going to see a different UT.”
Hood agrees that the Vols have dramatically upgraded their conditioning in recent months.
“It started with training in the offseason,” he said. “We trained to go hard instead of just slow-playing 50 or 60 of them (snaps).”
Randolph says Tennessee’s increased level of conditioning has created an increased level of confidence.
“I feel that’s a big part, so we don’t get worn down,” he said. “We’ll be ready for a fast pace, which is helping us mentally and physically.”
Clearly, the Vols believe they’re ready for Saturday’s game, even if the temperature is approaching 90 degrees and the humidity is soaring.
“When you practice as many plays as we do as hard as we do, it’s going to definitely help us a lot,” James said. “The game won’t be half as tiring as practice is with Coach Jones.”