published Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

UT Vols prepared for elements at Music City Bowl


by Wes Rucker

NASHVILLE -- The forecast is less than perfect -- a high of 46 degrees, low of 44 and 30 percent chance of rain showers.

That doesn't sound like postcard-perfect night on the football field, but Thursday's Music City Bowl will be a welcomed respite for the University of Tennessee Volunteers, who have spent the past few weeks practicing in much worse conditions.

Senior defensive end Chris Walker said Monday's practice at Vanderbilt was "the coldest I've been in a long time."

"My freshman year at Kentucky was the coldest I've been since I've been at Tennessee, but (Monday) was pretty cold," Walker said. "My fingertips were frozen, but hey, we got through it."

That was no small task for several Vols, especially those from the warm-weather states.

"It's been bad," said sophomore All-Southeastern Conference cornerback Prentiss Waggner, a Clinton, La., native.

First-year UT head coach Derek Dooley said the Vols needed to start acclimating themselves in Knoxville, so he's kept them outside for most of their bowl preparations.

If UT was preparing for a warm-weather or indoor bowl, he'd probably keep them inside. After spending his youth in Athens, Ga., and seven years coaching in Louisiana, he's no fan of old man winter, either. But Nashville, like Knoxville, can be cold in late December, so he ignored his players' complaints.

The Vols didn't even break out their serious cold-weather gear until they arrived in Nashville.

And they needed it, Dooley said.

"I don't know what 'feels like' means. You know, like on The Weather Channel, '25, feels like 17,'" Dooley said after Sunday's practice. "Is that the new wind-chill factor? Is that what it is? When did they change the terminology?

"Well, it felt like negative-17 out there."

True freshman quarterback Tyler Bray, a Kingsbury, Calif., native, threw so poorly early in Sunday's practice that a miffed Dooley eventually approached him and asked what was wrong.

"Nothing," said Bray, who eventually warmed up, put more zip on the ball and completed more passes.

Junior defensive tackle Malik Jackson, a Los Angeles-area native who played the past two years at Southern California, said practicing outside in the cold "(ticked) me off" at first.

"But Dooley wouldn't let us go inside, so I got used to it a little bit," Jackson said. "It's been better lately."

Dooley's approach to cold-weather games has very recently and very drastically changed. His first season at Louisiana Tech, 2007, ended with a game at Nevada. Tech needed a win to finish 6-6 and become bowl eligible, and it needed that win on a typically frigid winter night in Reno.

"I learned a lesson," Dooley said. "It was cold. It was as cold as I've ever been. It was normal for (Nevada), I guess. Our team went out there, and we were more worried about the cold than winning the game. And I started getting angrier and angrier. Then we took all the coats off and sent them in the locker room, and we unplugged the heaters and threw the heaters, and they kept playing worse and worse and worse, the more I did. So I quit fighting it. We're giving them any cold-weather gear they want. We had all the hats on, the hand-warmers, whatever you want. Just go play good. It can't be an excuse for not playing well.

"Everybody's a little different," the coach said. "Figure out a way to get comfortable and get your body ready, and when you go out there, it's not an excuse not to play well."

Some Vols, including senior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz, sophomore weakside linebacker Herman Lathers and sophomore offensive tackle Dallas Thomas -- the last two being Louisiana natives -- said they'll practice in cold-weather gear but won't ever play a game in long sleeves.

"It just doesn't feel right when my arms are covered up," Lathers said.

Added Reveiz: "I'm a 'go-with-what-works' guy, and I've been playing OK without sleeves, so I'm not going to change it now. I'm going to tough it out."

Others, like junior tailback Tauren Poole, said they'll pile on layers until they're warm.

"I'm a 'be comfortable' guy, and cold ain't comfortable for me," said Poole, a Toccoa, Ga., native.

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@timesfreepress.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.

about Wes Rucker...

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