KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – For Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, a bowl game means an opportunity to put the Volunteers through another training camp this season.
Dooley gave his players over two weeks off practice to give their bodies a chance to heal from the grind of the regular season. Starting Thursday, he'll put the Vols through a sort of mini-camp, drilling the young players on fundamentals and conditioning them to face North Carolina in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30.
"It's an opportunity to continue to develop and coach your football team to get better," Dooley said Wednesday. "It's going to be physical. It's going to hurt."
Tennessee (6-6) has had little depth this season because of attrition from back-to-back coaching turnovers and injuries. The Vols had 16 true freshmen make it to the playing field this season, ranking them behind only Air Force and Florida for most freshmen played.
They had their share of growing pains during what was already a tough schedule with opponents like Oregon, Florida, LSU and Alabama, but started practicing well and winning in the final month of the season, putting together a four-game win streak to earn their bowl bid.
And unlike the spring and fall camps, Dooley and his staff won't have to spend so much time figuring out who the players are and what they can contribute to the team.
"You get 15 extra practices. That's pretty much a whole other spring practice session. If you look at it that way it's huge, especially with the youth on our football team and them playing as much as they have, this is huge for them and their development," senior tight end Luke Stocker said.
The Vols spend their time off from practicing working out, lifting weights and throwing the ball around — much like they do during their summer break from football practice.
Dooley said he'll spend the first four practices this month completely focused on coaching fundamentals and conditioning the players. Starting Monday, the team will begin preparing for the Tar Heels like a normal game week but will take a break on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day before traveling to Nashville.
"It's a good opportunity for us to continue to coach and develop all these freshmen who've contributed so well this year but who need so much more development, so we're happy about that," he said.
Tennessee will be without junior cornerback Art Evans, who will continue to serve his indefinite suspension for a violation of team rules, and junior defensive back Stephaun Raines, who was dismissed from the team after the end of the regular season for a violation of team rules.
Sophomore safety Janzen Jackson will miss an undetermined number of practices before the Music City Bowl as he spends time at home in Lake Charles, La., dealing with what Dooley described as "very, very personal and family issues." Jackson is expected to return in time to face North Carolina.
Dooley said North Carolina (7-5) appears on film to be as talented a team as Tennessee has seen all season and credited the Tar Heels for playing well despite the ongoing NCAA investigation into their program and resulting suspensions.
North Carolina "went through a lot of adversity that affected their results but has done a great job of overcoming it, so give their coaching staff credit for the job they've done this year and keeping them focused through a lot of distraction," Dooley said.