Tennessee already lacked depth and experience along the front seven of its defense.
With Friday's news that All-SEC defensive tackle Malik Jackson had suffered a right knee sprain --- likely during Thursday's practice --- and will miss two weeks, coach Derek Dooley acknowledged the Vols were out of proven players in their defensive front.
But, Dooley half-joked, that's a good news/bad news scenario.
"By the way, Malik hurt his knee. Sprained his knee, so he's going to be out a couple of weeks. It should only be a couple of weeks," Dooley said of Jackson, the Vols' top returning player in its front seven. "We are now zero out of seven, that's right. But we weren't very good in the front seven last year, so some people would say that's the best news we've had all season. Think about it. You heard that saying, â€˜The good news is we've got everybody back. The bad news is we've got everybody back.'
"The bad news is we've got zero out of seven, the good news is we've got zero out of seven. No, we want Malik back, and we want Herman (Lathers) back. We want two out of seven."
Instead, Justin Wilcox is now formulating a defense that features Jacques Smith, returning from surgeries in both feet, at one end spot and converted linebacker-defensive tackle-end Marlon Walls at the other end. With Jackson out, the Vols look to Daniel Hood, who signed as a tight end, moved to offensive line and now resides along the defensive interior, and junior college signee Maurice Couch along the interior. Willie Bohannon and Ben Martin could be factors at end, and Corey Miller is trying to get comfortable at tackle.
After Allan Carson seemed to struggle off the practice field, Dooley said the squat freshman tackle needed to work on his conditioning.
"He weighs, you know, a lot. So we're trying to get him. Allan is an old-school player, because in the old days they came to training camp to get in shape," Dooley said. "Nowadays they start in June and train all June and July so we don't -- he's kind of a throwback guy. So he came to training camp saying, â€˜OK, get in me shape.' That's what we're having to do with Allan."
Further, Dooley is trying to whip into shape his team as it has merged together into one unit following three days of split-squad practices. The Vols will go full pads Saturday and eye their first intrasquad scrimmage on Tuesday.
"It should be better having the whole team, because there are more bodies. I think it got a little hot out there, they're in their pads and you go through a couple of bad plays. When bad plays start happening, the coaches get louder and the players get quieter," Dooley said. "Then the coaches get louder, and the players get quieter and I start having a headache. When the players learn how to get out of those bad plays by them getting louder and having a little leadership to affect others positively, we'll shut up. That's where we need to go."
That, Dooley explained, requires a commitment to mental toughness --- something he found the Vols largely missed a year ago.
"Probably the most important thing we can do is learn how to endure and overcome adversity when it hits us, whether it's in practice, in a game, every day," Dooley said. "That's a sign of a real mature football team. That's going to be a real challenge for this team being so young, and when bad things happen, how do we handle it? We didn't handle it well last year, we looked at a lot of the data from last year, we had three games where we were either tied or within one score entering the fourth quarter and we went 0-3 in them. The good news is we were 3-0 when we were ahead by one score.
"What we have to do is learn how to overcome being behind and bad things happening and not be a front-running football team. That's going to take some time."
So much time that Dooley indicated he works on that concept year-round with his teams.
"You have to put them through adversity, and when adversity hits, we have to challenge them and try to coach it to play out of it and learn to play out of it. It's a mindset that has to become a core value for how you compete that you never get affected," Dooley emphasized. "It's one of our core values is your attitude, because that's where it starts. There's an old saying my wife read to me, â€˜Life wouldn't be so difficult if we didn't expect it to be so easy.' Think about it. If you know adversity is going to hit you every day, bad things are going to happen and you treat it as an opportunity to do great things, then you generally do.
"But if you come out here every day expecting to be the greatest, then when something bad happens to you you don't know what to do. â€˜Hey, wait a minute, this is wasn't what's supposed to happen.' You need to expect adversity to happen, it's going to happen in the fall, it's going to happen every game because we play good players."
So Dooley delivers the message constantly.
"I try to tackle it all year. The offseason, you know, that's probably one of the biggest challenges," he said. "All these guys come in and they think everything is going to be great and easy, and it's not."
Dooley was complimentary of newcomer Antonio Jones, who joined the team Thursday night for his first practice. The lanky, 6-foot-4, 215-pound wideout, a JuCo teammate of Couch, joined the Vols as a walk-on after he received some scholarship offers to mid-major D-I programs.
"He looks pretty good moving around. I haven't watched him enough, he's only been out there two days, but we're glad he's here," Dooley said. "Looked pretty good the first day."