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."
JUNIOR OL JA'WUAN JAMES
(On what he focused on individually during the off week)
"I wanted to maintain my individual drive box longer and finish those last two seconds on the play. I also wanted to just having consistent pass sets and not getting outworked by the opponent."
(On the O-Line pride)
"We take a lot of pride in it, joking around about who is going to give up this or that. But we really feel like we have been doing a good job and really working on it all summer and spring."
(On beating a ranked opponent)
"It is very important, it's important to get any win but this would be a good one. I don't think since I have been here that we have beat a ranked opponent so we are looking forward to going out here and getting a win. It has [gotten under my skin]. But you have to take every game like it is and go out and play as hard as you can and try and get the win."
(On playing four quarters)
"I feel like it is just straining. You have to be mentally strong because by the time it is the fourth quarter everyone is tired. You just played three quarters of college football. It comes down to focus, the little things and outstraining the opponent."
(On playing tough down the stretch)
"In the Georgia game late in the game, where we might have fallen off last year or the previous years, everybody turned it up another notch."
RS SENIOR DB PRENTISS WAGGNER
(On watching Mississippi State this past Saturday)
"They have a solid defense. The offense put the ball in the player's hand, like LaDarius Perkins and those backs, and their quarterback manages the game for them. I'm really impressed. You can tell those guys have been in the system a long time. They are a core group of receivers and their quarterback, you can tell they have put years down working together, so they're a well-rounded offense."
(On LaDarrell McNeil)
"I think LaDarrell will be ready. One thing LaDarrell is going to do, is he is going to play full speed. We have to do a better job in the background of just helping him out every play. B Moore is going to take control of the backend and let us help LaDarrell out on the things he doesn't know."
(On preparation for the long run)
"Last week's practice was real physical. We were going to the gun a lot last week. The main thing was that we got back to the fundamentals last week of just tackling and taking proper angles. Here and there, just like a mental breakdown on the play. We have a couple great plays, then we have a mental breakdowns with the angles. Playing defense you have to take the perfect angle every time. If we can wipe out those big plays, we'll be sitting real good right now."
(On SEC's pass defense)
"I think in the SEC, the SEC is known for defense, I think. Their motto is 'stop the run,' so when you can have a defense that can stop the run and be pretty high in passing efficiency also, you can have a great defense."
JUNIOR WR CORDARRELLE PATTERSON
(On getting his hands on the ball)
"It is pretty amazing. We sit down and watch film and coaches tell me that they have different packages to give me the ball. Just to show my skills. So I think it is good, I am just trying to get more touches. I see some more things I can do out there. "
(On how to handle Mississippi State's secondary)
"They say they are good on the edge so we just have to attack them and see how much they can do when we put pressure on them."
(On playing a ranked opponent)
"It is a good challenge. But we don't look at that, we just go out there and do what we know we can do. We know we are going to do some good things."
(On the SEC grind)
"I need a little rest. I was trying to rest up and get ready for this one."
(On getting more comfortable with the plays)
"I am very comfortable. It seems like I can just go out there and just run the plays."
(On Zach Rogers)
"He is doing some great things out there. He is just being himself out there, just opening it up for me and Justin. They used to focus on just me and Justin but now they have to focus on him."
RS SENIOR TE MYCHAL RIVERA
(On Mississippi State)
"They have a lot of playmakers, they are going to be real physical, and they have some real big guys on defense."
"They have a some big guys in the secondary, a couple of good linebackers, and a real big d-line. They are a real good SEC team. We have to come in there and bring our best."
(On playing against a good secondary like Mississippi State)
"We just have to stay within our concept. Bray has to stay within the progression. You just have to do your job and the openings will be there. It's just you have to find the openings."
(On the running game)
"It makes it a real different game when we are able to run the ball. The linebackers and the defense are really confused and when they are confused like that you have big play opportunity."
SOPHOMORE OL ANTONIO RICHARDSON
(On Mississippi State's atmosphere)
"I heard that it is really loud. Their stadium capacity is 55,000 but it is still really loud with their bells down there and we are going to have to make adjustments with the snap count."
(On proving themselves)
"If we come out this week and build on what we did against Georgia it is going to show that we are consistent and we are here to stay."
(On Mississippi State's defense)
"They are really quick and they get a lot of guys to the ball. They swarm to the ball. They have a possible first-rounder at corner and they have a couple d linemen that have potential and have a possibility going high in the draft. They have some really good players so we are going to come out ready to play."
(On movements up-front)
"They try to do a lot of exotic blitzes with the linebackers who move around and try to confuse you. We are watching film and getting good looks from the scout team and getting better every day."
(On Mississippi State's defensive front)
"Josh Boyd is a really good player and plays a three technique. He is really fast up the field and moves well literally. Number Denico Autry on the edge is really good and powerful and likes to move off the edge a lot. We will be ready for them; the scout team is giving us a lot of good looks."
(On playing against athletes who will likely play in the NFL)
"It is helping me a lot, especially early. I think that when it is my time to go it is going to help me a lot getting reps against these guys. When you play against the best every week you can't help but to get better."
RS JUNIOR DB BYRON MOORE
(On what was worked on in practice)
"We just put a big emphasis on tackling. We worked on that all week. From open field tackling to angle tackling. We just cleaned up techniques, went back and acted like we were installing the defense again. Just like training camp mode all over again. Learning techniques and fundamentals all over again."
(On the cowbells at Mississippi State)
"Not really. I have seen one, they showed it to us today in the meeting and told us to get ready for it. We are just going to go in there, block it out and play our game."
(On eye control)
"It is just all about having good eye control. Last week we really focused on that, reading the guards, reading the triangle from guards to guards. Just trying to get a run, pass, read during the first second of the downs to come up and react quicker. We put a lot of emphasis on that last week and continued to do that this week. We are getting better at it and reacting quicker."
(On LaDarrell McNeil)
"Just make sure that he knows what he is doing on the opposite side. Make sure that he knows that he has to communicate to the other corner about what he has to do. Just let LaDarrell play fast. He is an instinctive guy so you don't want to put too much in his head, just let him go play fast."
"He is a mature kid, he is up there studying the playbook, watching extra film, he is just a ball hawk. He is always on the ball. He is flying around back there. Anytime you can get somebody flying to the ball like he does, it's good to have someone like that on the team."
JUNIOR DL DANIEL MCCULLERS
(On Mississippi State)
"It is going to be a power game. They run the ball a lot so we will have to get ready for that during the week to take on the run.
(On MSU's offense)
"I am getting adjusted to it really well. Just working on it every day and learning the scheme. The right gap technique - I am continuing to get better."
(On what he needs to do better)
"Just get off the ball a lot faster than I do. I have to learn moves. I usually just bull rush, that works most of the time but now I have to learn a lot of technique."
(On his length as a benefit)
"Yes I have been able to do that because of my long arms. I have been a good tip ball person. That can help the pass rush. Just get my arms up, affecting the quarterback vision so that is a good thing to do."
RS SOPHOMORE P MATT DARR
(On blocked kick against Georgia)
"It hurt... especially to me personally. I just feel for the team too. That was a huge blow for us in the field position and the result of it was points for them. It's tough to swallow during the game and watching it on film. All we can do is try and fix those mistakes and not let it happen again."
(On punt coverage)
"A lot of it has to do with the punt. If you can get a good hang time punt and they opt not to fair catch it, our guys have been there every time to tackle them. It's huge when you don't have to worry about a loose runner getting in the way. I just have to keep doing my job and give them a good punt to work with."
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