It's not exactly a picnic, but today comes pretty close for hard-hitting Tennessee linebacker Rico McCoy.
After four days acclimating to practice in helmets, shorts and shoulder pads, the Vols don full gear today for the first time in fall camp. And McCoy, known for his relentless, wrecking-ball style, likes little else as well as the opening day of contact.
"Everybody's pretty excited about. It's the most exciting day in camp, besides maybe the last day when you have your picnic," said McCoy, referencing the team's annual camp-ending barbecue. "It's a very important day. Everybody's excited about it."
The initial day in pads is expected to be eye-opening for a number of players, particularly freshmen. Gritty senior offensive tackle Ramon Foster certainly recalls his welcome-to-the-SEC moment at his first full-contact practice.
"My first day in full pads, I remember Parys Haralson zooming by me," said the veteran, 6-foot-6, 325-pounder. "That's what I remember. He might have had the strongest punch in the history of football my freshman year. But it's a good thing. I know some of the younger guys are probably nervous about it, and they've just got to take it and run with it."
McCoy was running all over the place on his first day in pads, even if he wasn't always sure where he was going.
"Guys were huge, bigger than anybody I'd ever played against," he said. "I just remember being drop-dead tired afterwards because I was playing 110 mph the whole day. Whether I knew what I was doing or not, I was balls to the wall."
Players aren't the only ones anticipating the contact. Defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell continues to be impressed by the work of his charges. This practice signifies another opportunity to impress.
"(Wednesday) is real football," said Caldwell. "The rest of this has been preparing for this, and hopefully the kids will be excited about it. You always look forward to that first day in full pads and see them running around because they know that's what it's all about, too. And we're trying to prepare for this first big scrimmage on Saturday."
Nothing, however, quite compares a freshman for the sheer size differential from high school, McCoy says.
"We're going to see where we really stand," the preseason first-team All-SEC pick said. "First day in full pads, everybody's going to try and see what they really have. Everybody's going to see, even the new guys, especially a big day for the new guys, everybody's going to come out here and see what college football's about. Hitting linemen that are almost 100 pounds bigger than what they were used to in high school. I know it was like that for me, you're coming out here playing against guys 320, 315-pound linemen.
"In high school, some teams are lucky to have a 260-pound lineman. So, a lot of defensive guys are going to see what that's like and the offensive guys are going to get to see the speed of the game. How fast the guys can get there and hit you. How fast you've got to make a move on somebody. So, (today's) a very important day for guys on the team."
Foster expects a full battle from the defense.
"Football is played in full pads, and this is just a warm-up right here," said Foster. "There's going to be a lot of contact, traditional drills, Tennessee drills, one-on-ones. Us against linebackers. Us against the D-line. Whatever you want to do, they're going to do it. They're going to put up everything they got, and we're going to have to be ready."
Continuing to progress in the offense of first-year coordinator Dave Clawson remains top priority, according to Foster.
"Bonding together and taking that step. Like I said, defense is going to throw everything at us; coach (John) Chavis is a crafty man. We're just going to have to adjust to them and do what we did last year and not make any busts. … And keep Jonathan Crompton comfortable."
Do all that, and the day should be, well, a picnic.
WOWED BY WARREN
Clawson has seen enough from Brandon Warren in four days of practice to know he doesn't want to contemplate not seeing the former Alcoa Mr. Football winner and Florida State Freshman All-American on the field.
"I hope we have him. He's a good athlete and there's no question he would help our football team," Clawson said. "It would be a great bonus if we have him, and hopefully that will work out. I don't want to go to the other place (of not having Warren)."
Robert Ayers, Wes Brown, Ben Martin and Chris Walker generated significant chatter this summer with their conditioning efforts. Through four days of practice, Caldwell continues to see affirmation of that work.
"It's been a lot of fun just to be here with them the first four days, and they've continued to work hard," Caldwell said. "It will be exciting when we get the pads on, and I think even Saturday will tell more than anything. Chris, I've really been happy with Chris. I was a little worried about him missing spring practice and everything, but I think he has worked hard enough in the summer that he's overcome some of that. Game situations that he missed in the spring and scrimmages, I'm sure, are going to hurt him, but so far I've been satisfied.
"Ben is playing faster and with more confidence than he ever has. I think the more reps those two get, the better they are going to be. Robert, right now, is playing as consistent and doing things a way a senior should do them. Like always, we've got to take them to game day and make sure we do the same thing. Wes, he's just so consistent. He's got great technique, great form and those four, right now, I wouldn't be scared to go play with them."
Caldwell wouldn't mind playing with a couple more freshmen in the mix. Willie Bohannon and Steve Fowlkes, who moved from wideout to end on Monday, have shown flashes thus far.
"I've really been happy with Willie Bohannon," the veteran coach and widely regarded recruiter said. "Willie, for a true freshman, he's got a lot of guts about him. One thing about it, he don't back down from anything. He works hard. He's been here for three works, and I think those kids have done a good job preparing him for what we were going to do out there.
"Steven, he's got some athletic ability. He's behind because he hasn't been here doing anything, but I can see him getting better and better. We'll just have to see how much he and Willie can contribute this year. We hope they can help us out because we need that fifth and sixth guy ready to go in case somebody gets hurt."
Both rookies got an advance screening of what today's practice will be like during some intense drill work on Tuesday.
"We did board drill today, just in shorts, which is one of the most physical things we do," Caldwell said. "I thought (Bohannon) did a great job. Steven's a little bit light right now, but one thing about him, he's not scared to get in there and compete. First time, he got wore out pretty good. But the second and third time, he got in there and held his own. I was really proud of him. Just like I told him, you don't have to be big. It's all about leverage. If I can get my leverage up under that big offensive tackle, they're not going to ask you to stay on him long. They're going to use your quickness and get off of him.
"They got a little bit of shock (Tuesday), and it will continue. The first time they have to get in there in what we call one of our reduced down fronts and have to get down in a five technique and get double-teamed, now that will shock them I'm sure."
Clawson said his squad returned for fall camp ahead of where it left off in the spring, and seeing that trend continue was identified as his focus in today's contact work.
"I'm encouraged because I think we're a step ahead of where we even finished this spring," said the first-year coach. "You finish the spring and over the summer think they're going to take a step back, but we came back much ahead of where I thought we would be.
"Now it's just a process of keeping it moving forward and try not to take too many steps back until we get everything in. The installation, we've been able to be a lot more aggressive with it and there's a lot less assignment mistakes. I think we're playing faster than at any point in the spring."
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