Heupel during Pittsburg game

Head coach Josh Heupel during the Tennessee Volunteer home football game against the Pittsburg Panthers in Neyland Stadium on Saturday Sep 11, 2021.

Tennessee football finally played a complete game last Saturday on the road against Missouri, coming away with a 62-24 victory. The Vols (3-2) gained 683 yards of offense, including 458 on the ground. With all that being said, “Vol Calls” this week was especially high spirited. 

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel began his time on Vol Calls talking about that incredible performance against the Tigers.

“Really great things to see from them,” Heupel said. “The best thing is the coaches, just some of things I’ve been talking about in weeks prior showed up and allowed us to play the way that we did. Guys have been great on the practice field and continue to get better each and every week in their practice habits. 

“Our preparation was the best that it’s been during the course of the week, but also, fans and media you’ve heard me talk about this the last 48 hours, it was our best last 48 hours in the lead up to kickoff and all those things add up to us playing cleaner during the course of the game,” Heupel said. “Penalties dropped, our efficiency on the offensive side of the football was better, the quarterback position and our run game defensively did a great job both dominating the line of scrimmage . . . overall a really good performance.”

Heupel went on to talk about what Tennessee needs to do to build on this win and keep improving. 

“The key for us is just understanding what allowed us to play in that manner and continuing to improve those things during the course of the week,” Heupel said. “Those things lead you to kickoff, doesn’t guarantee the result that you’re looking for but it puts you in that best position. So far this week our guys have been just fantastic. I think there’s a taste and a hunger for more.”

Tennessee quarterback Herndon Hooker has been a huge key to the Vols’ recent success on offense. After losing the starting job in fall camp, Hooker backed up Joe Milton for the team’s first two games. After taking over the job against Tennessee Tech, Hooker has 645 passing yards, 8 touchdowns and only 1 interception in three starts. Heupel commented on his quarterback’s recent success. 

“He has a good command of what we’re doing,” Heupel said. “I think he’s getting more comfortable operating and over the course of a ball game the tempo, being able to call it, getting his eyes down the football field, getting them in the right place, being a quick, sound decision maker which is really important. The quicker your quarterback can eliminate things, the quicker the ball eventually gets out of his hands.”

Tennessee legend Al Wilson is being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame this year, and Tennessee is celebrating Wilson’s career and accomplishments during this Saturday’s game. Heupel spoke on what makes Wilson so special. 

“I thought one of the striking things right away as I met the other players is he had great players that were on his side of the ball,” Heupel said. “He had great players that were on the offensive side of the ball, he had walk-ons that were there and part of that night. He was a guy’s guy that led that locker room and then being able to listen to his teammates talk about who he was and how he competed and how he led inside of that locker room was a message that I shared after hearing those stories with our football team.

“In training camp, we started playing highlights of great games, we played highlights of great players. Al was the first one that we threw up on there,” Heupel said. “The violence that he played with, the competitive spirit that oozes off the screen when you watch him, his toughness in a game where he can’t lift one of his arms, it’s strapped to his side playing with a dislocated shoulder but that dude is out there competing and making plays. Those are the things that our players needed to hear and needed to see, and this weekend is a great celebration of Al.”

Tennessee’s opponent this week is South Carolina. The Gamecocks (3-2) boast an impressive defense that relies heavily on forcing turnovers. 

“I think their turnover margin is number one in the country in terms of how many plays they’ve played,” Heupel said. “They’re top-5 in the country in turnovers created just in general. They do it in multiple ways. They’ve had some picks, they do a great job of punching at the football every single time that they’re trying to tackle somebody. That’s been a point of emphasis this week for our guys and trust me, all of our skill guys on offense and special teams understand the importance of that. That’s something that we’ve really tried to emphasize since day one that we’ve gotten on the grass.”

South Carolina’s offense has been middling at best thus far in 2021. Heupel broke down what Tennessee has to do to keep it that way. 

“I think for us, a big part of it is controlling the line of scrimmage,” Heupel said. “Eliminating the running back, eliminating the run game. Their running backs are a really good group, they have some depth there, we gotta control it on first and second down. Different style than what we’ve played from them offensively. They’re gonna huddle and base on 11 and some 12 personnel. We gotta handle some of the play-action game early, but we gotta get them in third-and-long and then we gotta get off the field.” 

A big development this week has been with Tennessee’s uniforms. The Volunteers will don a black jersey this week for the first time since 2009. At a place as rich with tradition as Tennessee, any uniform change is a big deal. 

“First of all, we have the greatest college uniforms in college football. Our traditional look is unbelievable and our combinations. That helmet when you’re under the lights is special the way that thing sparkles, but I think it’s important that you’re able to put a new age approach on things too and it was important to our players,” Heupel said. “Guys went crazy today when they got the opportunity to see it. We celebrate our great traditions but this is an opportunity to put a new age approach on it at times as well. Important to our players, it’s a part of recruiting in today's landscape too.”

Tennessee will debut their “Dark Mode” jersey against South Carolina at Neyland Stadium Saturday Oct. 9 at noon EST.

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