KNOXVILLE -- On to Phase 2.
After more than two weeks since wearing pads and making tackles, Tennessee will get back on the practice field Thursday to begin preparations for the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
No more classes to deal with. Final exams are over and grades are posted. In fact, the University of Tennessee campus is desolate of students, so there aren't a lot of distractions.
"It's boring," running back Tauren Poole said of being around campus without the rest of the student body. "It's really boring to sit at home and you don't have anything to do."
Poole and the Vols have had things to do. The team has spent these two weeks since the season finale victory against Kentucky by working out and conditioning in what head coach Derek Dooley calls Phase 1 of his four-phased bowl game plan.
The 18 days have been stuffed with seven-on-seven, non-contact drills with teammates passing and catching. The focus has been on the basics.
And before the Vols begin to look at North Carolina, they'll take a look at fundamentals. Thursday's official practice is something of a mini-camp, Dooley said.
"It's a four-practice window of training camp," Dooley said. "We will not do anything at all that relates to our opponent. It's all good-on-good. It's our plays against your defense. We work on a lot of fundamentals. We work on blocking, tackling, catching, throwing, defending - all the basics. This is that opportunity that you really cherish."
After two weeks of not hitting anything, the players will cherish it, too. The mini-camp workouts kept things moving, but without school and homework and exams and even social time with other students that packed the normal routine away from the football complex, the focus could wane.
"I feel like it's been a long time since I've played football," linebacker Nick Reveiz said. "I haven't had the pads on in a while. We're ready to get back to practice and excited about the game. We've gotten through finals and been running and conditioning and doing all that kind of stuff."
The extra time off after the season concluded is not very common. Many teams rush right into bowl preparations. Last year, under former head coach Lane Kiffin, the Vols began practicing the very next week and were on Haslam Field the day of the Southeastern Conference Championship Game getting ready for a trip to the Peach Bowl.
Dooley has a different plan.
With very little depth on this team and loads of freshmen and sophomores in the rotation, the extra practices are beneficial no matter what. But by giving his squad time to rest, heal and refresh, it has the Vols feeling like it's a whole new season again.
"Originally I thought, you know what, I don't want to get rusty," said tight end Luke Stocker. "But after being through the break, your whole body feels like it was during the summer. My whole body has completely recovered. That's what it was designed to do. We're all going to benefit from this schedule and let our body recover. I wasn't feeling too spiffy to finish the season. It wasn't anything that would prevent me from playing, just nagging things. But I feel great now. I'm ready to go."
Added Reveiz: "I thought it was really smart to let all our guys recover. The season is long. It's really 13 weeks of practice as far as game preparations and preseason before that. So you've got bangs and nicks and all that. It was really good to have recovery, and also start conditioning again. When you get this long of a break, it helps you refresh not only your body but your mind."
This schedule also has allowed the players to focus. They concentrated on exam time as the fall semester concluded, without football serving as a distraction from academics. And now with school in the rear-view mirror, the agenda shifts to one thing: the Tar Heels.
"When you think about it, this is what we want," Poole said. "We want to have time to chill and not worry about schoolwork. It definitely gives you a lot of time to focus on football and focus on what's important right now, and that's winning a ball game."
The intensity begins Thursday with four hard-hitting practices over the weekend aimed solely at getting the team back in playing form.
"That mini-camp, we're getting after them," Dooley said. "There's going to be some tackling. It's going to hurt."
Phase 3 begins on Monday, when the team will do a scouting report of North Carolina. It will be just like any other game week this season as the week unfolds through Thursday. The Vols will get two days off for Christmas, and then will meet up in Nashville on Dec. 26 to begin Phase 4. In Phase 4, the team will revisit work from its Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday practices from the previous week and refine things in final preparations for the game.
"It's a real balance between working them and having them where they feel fresh on game day," Dooley said. "You can be too fresh on game day and you're not ready physically. Or you can be beat down mentally or physically on game day. You're always walking that fine line. It's a hard thing to ever know until they play."
Dooley's approach to bowl preparations, however, has only made the Vols hungry for hard work on the football field.
"There's no secret to being great or winning games," Reveiz said. "We're going to have to put in work. That's what we're going to do this weekend."
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)