The Tennessee football team practiced for two hours inside the Neyland-Thomspon Sports Center on Sunday. Dubbed a “Wednesday” practice, the Vols worked primarily on third down situations in team drills. But just as in previous days, a significant portion of the workout was devoted to special teams.
The Vols take on Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A bowl on Dec. 31st, and the Hokies have a developed a reputation of excellence in the kick and kick return game during head coach Frank Beamer’s 23-year tenure. Tennessee struggled at times during the season and is currently without a special teams coach.
UT head man Lane Kiffin knows the Hokies present a tough challenge on special teams, but is intent on putting in the time necessary to prepare his team.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Kiffin said. “With Eddie Gran not being here and guys in charge of new groups, there's a lot to be done. We've moved around some depth charts, changed some scheme stuff. So I'm glad we have extra time to prepare because of that.”
The Hokies have scored three kick or punt return touchdowns this season and did not have a field goal or punt blocked in 12 games. Tennessee, on the other hand, has not scored on a kick or punt return since the 2004 season and has had four field goals and one punt blocked this year.
Freshmen Rebounding: The difference between a high school and college football season is significant. Many first-year players struggle in the latter portions of the college season because their bodies aren't accustomed to the longer schedule. Kiffin sees several of his freshmen starting to catch their second wind after getting a break following the Kentucky game on Nov. 28.
“I think for freshmen in general the season gets so long, they get so worn down,” Kiffin said. “It's so different than what they're used to in high school that their bodies start to wear down. Then when they have a little bit of a break like they did after the season, they come back refreshed. I think our freshmen in general have looked better (in bowl practice).”
One freshman who appears as strong as ever is freshman tailback Bryce Brown, who arrived at Tennessee amid sky-high expectations but was relegated to a backup role when senior Montario Hardesty began his march to more than 1,300 yards this season.
“I think (Brown) would have done that if he would have had the opportunity to,” Kiffin said. “His average per carry was up there. He played extremely well. There was a variable that a lot of people wouldn't have been able to predict, and that was a 1,300-yard rusher in front of him. Hardesty had more carries than any tailback in the SEC, including the Heisman Trophy winner who played one more game than him.”
Stephens Seeing Time: With Jonathan Crompton limited due to a minor hand injury for the second day in a row, junior signal-caller Nick Stephens worked with the first unit. Kiffin was impressed with his play and appears confident that his current backup could become a quality starter in 2010.
“I think it's a very good example of when someone has to play, they play better usually,” Kiffin said. “He's done really well. He's playing the best he's played since we've been here. A lot of that has to do with he's going in there with the ones and going in there with a tight end that's playing extremely well, a couple of tailbacks and receivers. When you go in with those guys, it helps. Especially as well as those guys have been playing.”