Several UT players were battling assorted bumps and bruises throughout the final month of the regular season. They should be considerably healthier vs. Penn State than they were in late-season games against Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
Quarterback Erik Ainge, for instance, got to rest the ankle injury that caused him to miss Game 9 vs. LSU and Game 10 vs. Arkansas. It isn't 100 percent healed but the pain level is the lowest it has been since he injured it in Game 8 vs. South Carolina.
"It won't go away until I can just not do anything for a while," Ainge explained. "When you get a high-ankle sprain, it's two to four weeks (recovery time) if you don't do anything. Is it a lot better? Yes, it's a lot better."
Still, the ankle won't heal completely until he can stay off of it completely. That will have to wait until AFTER Jan. 1.
"I think (Jayson) Swain, (Robert) Meachem, (Jerod) Mayo and all those guys who have had ankle problems will tell you that (rest) is the best thing to do," Ainge said.
Mayo missed the Kentucky game because of his ankle injury. The Vols' star outside linebacker has recovered sufficiently to be cleared to play against Penn State, however.
Meachem, who has played through an assortment of minor injuries this season, says the break from the rigors of practicing and playing was very beneficial. Still, he notes that he and the other wide receivers stayed busy.
"It helps a lot because we had a lot of key guys that were a little banged up," he said. "As receivers, we sat down for two or three days, then we were right back at it. We talked to a lot of the guys that are in the NFL to see what they do during their off time – Donte' Stallworth, Peerless Price and a lot of other guys. Coach Trooper (Taylor) knows a lot of people, and if he feels like they can help us get better, he's going to call one of them."
Asked if he and Ainge might have lost their rhythm during the time off, Meachem shook his head emphatically.
"Oh, no. Rhythm is like riding a bike," he said. "The rhythm is always going to be there. It's like dribbling a basketball. I haven't dribbled a basketball in a long time but I bet if I go in there and dribble for three weeks I'd be able to dribble like I used to.
"That's how it goes. Having Erik back and catching the ball from him, at first we may look a little sluggish but after awhile we're going to come back."
Offensive tackle Arron Sears, who struggled with ankle problems the last half of the season, believes he improved significantly during the time off. He also believes the break helped his teammates rest their tired legs.
"I feel great," he said. "We had a team run, and everybody was out there flying around like it was the beginning of the season. This time off is going to help a lot of guys get back to 100 percent or as close to 100 percent as possible."