Tennessee’s football team opened its first spring practice under new head coach Josh Heupel last week. As the Vols get into full pads this week, let’s take a look at a few important areas in Heupel’s first 15 practices as UT’s head coach.
Does anyone separate themselves at quarterback?
For the first time in nearly half a decade, Jarrett Guarantano won’t be earning reps to compete for the starting quarterback job.
While the bar to replace Guarantano’s production is small, the Vols don’t have a clear candidate with four signal callers vying for the starting job.
Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker has the most experience out of Tennessee’s quarterbacks, throwing for 2,894 yards and running for 986 yards in two seasons as the Hokies’ quarterback. The junior from Greensboro, North Carolina has tallied 36 touchdowns while throwing seven interceptions the last two seasons.
Sophomore Harrison Bailey could be his main competition after starting the last three games of his freshman season. Bailey threw for 578 yards and four touchdowns while throwing two interceptions.
Junior Brian Maurer and true freshman Kaidon Salter round out the quarterback room, but Salter won’t be starting spring practice with the team as he’s indefinitely suspended due to an incident earlier this month at Stokely Hall.
Through the opening practices, Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel has been pleased with the returns from its most important position.
“At the quarterback position in particular, I thought they handled the tempo portion of some of our team sets extremely well and handled the communication piece of it,” Heupel said. “They played within themselves. They made some mistakes out there, but they did a lot of really positive things too. The thing that we've challenged our guys on is 'Don't make the same mistake twice. Be coachable. Accept the coaching in a positive way. Learn from it. Grow from it. Change from one rep to the next.'”
Tennessee likely won’t name its starting quarterback by the end of spring practice but the 15 practices are a needed opportunity for Heupel and his offensive staff to figure out what they have at the quarterback position and should allow them to narrow down the competition heading into fall practice.
For now, Tennessee’s staff just wants to see its quarterbacks embrace the new system and absorb as much information as possible.
“As with any new system, I think the overall big picture with those guys — getting the play call in communicating it all, getting us into the right things as they see different looks, playing really fast, playing decisive — I think that’s what’s separating those guys moving forward,” Offensive coordinator Alex Golsesh said. “Who can operate within the system at a really high rate. It’s all about decision making there. In terms of being able to get us in the right play and execute it at a high clip. I think all three of those guys are doing a good job of learning it and then being able to translate it onto the field.”
Installing new system and creating comfort
One of the most important tasks for any new coach is to get his systems installed on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.
Fans and media will only have the Orange and White game to go off of for how that is going, and that will provide only limited information. However, it will be a critical part of Heupel’s first spring and his team’s readiness this fall.
“You've got to understand that it's year one,” Heupel said. “Your system may be this, but it's year one, practice one for your guys. So, you spoon-feed them. You give them an opportunity to soak in what you've done. That's partially why we backed up spring ball, to make sure that they had an opportunity to get some of that information beforehand and get some of the playbook digested. You can push it as far and as fast as you possibly can before it gets to spring ball. You come back and now you're back to a day one install. As your players came back to day one, I think they grabbed onto a whole lot more than we probably thought that they would as we got ready for practice one.”
The players aren’t the only ones adjusting to new situations. While Tennessee’s offensive staff almost all followed Heupel from Central Florida to UT, the Vols’ defensive staff is all new, with some of its assistants coaching together for the first time.
“We've got great chemistry as far as our defensive staff,” Heupel said. “We've got a bunch of guys who believe in what we're doing and who's leading that room. There's great confidence in Coach (Tim) Banks from myself and everybody inside of the defensive staff room. Some of those guys have worked together. I think that chemistry is important.”
How does the defense regroup?
Tennessee’s roster was gutted this offseason by transfers and other departures, and nowhere was hit harder than the defense.
Most of the attention will be on the Vols’ offense due to their recent struggles and Heupel’s reputation as a high level offensive mind within the sport. Still, Tennessee’s defense raises many questions entering the spring.
The Vols lost their top two pass rushers from a bad pass rushing team a season ago. Can Tennessee’s front four return to the solid group they were in the second half of 2019 with the stability of Rodney Garner as defensive line coach?
Tennessee’s linebacker room was gutted with the transfers of Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch. Besides Jeremy Banks, who steps up to be a potential starter in the middle of Tennessee’s defense?
In the secondary, Tennessee deals with the loss of Bryce Thompson to the NFL and Keyshawn Lawrence to the transfer portal. The Vols have some starting pieces back, but who fills in to the rolls filled by departing players, and can UT get better safety play then they did a season ago?
All are important questions for Tennessee’s defense to try and start answering this spring, and Heupel is happy with the energy and early returns.
“They're playing with great energy,” Heupel said. “I thought they did a really good job of communicating at all three levels today. Some points of emphasis for us are to eliminate busts and be able to line up, play assignments soundly and play with great technique."