Tennessee’s football team hit the field at Neyland Stadium for the first time this fall, Thursday. Seven practices into fall camp, Tennessee held its first scrimmage as Josh Heupel and his staff starts to figure out who is and isn’t going to be in the rotation.
Here’s three other takeaways from Heupel’s conversation with the media Friday.
Defense wins the day
For most of the six plus months Josh Heupel has been Tennessee’s head coach, the talk around the team has been about the offensive side of the ball.
Heupel is, after all, a coach with a strong offensive philosophy and Tennessee’s defense was gutted by the transfer portal after performing poorly on the field a season ago.
But at the first scrimmage of fall camp, the day belonged to the defense.
“At the end of the day I don’t think we offensively strung things together the way we need to,” Heupel said. “Some of that is just 11 guys all doing their job at a really high level. It’s not just one position, one guy. It was a little bit of everything at all points.”
“I thought the defensive side of the football was extremely physical— changing and disrupting the offensive front. (They) played on the other side of the line of scrimmage and, again, they tackled extremely well. You didn’t see many missed tackles during the course of play.”
Tennessee tackling well in its first scrimmage of the spring is surprising. This is a unit with a lot of unproven players and defenses usually struggle to tackle early in fall camp.
Of course there’s two sides to that coin as Tennessee’s play makers weren’t breaking a lot of tackles. Still, Heupel was extremely complimentary of his top two running backs Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans Thursday.
Heupel didn’t praise any position group as much as he praised his defensive line, however. Defensive line coach Rodney Garner has his unit playing at a much higher level than they were in the fall.
“First day of pads where we were at last spring to where we are now, it’s a different group,” Heupel said. “It’s different on the practice field— the physicality and playing up field, disrupting and changing the line of scrimmage. Most importantly it’s just a different group inside the meeting room. Who they are, accountability factor every single day, their consistency, their work habits, their ability to learn, their ability to play for the guy next to them and do it right and accountability in that room is completely different and why it’ll be different on the field.”
Heupel doesn’t tip hand at quarterback
Besides the update he provided on Maurer, Heupel didn’t say anything specific about his quarterback room.
Heupel and offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said they wanted to get Tennessee’s quarterback race whittled down to two or three quarterbacks in the first two weeks of practice. They did that by telling Maurer he would earn less reps.
However, the rest of Tennessee’s quarterback room is still earning the same number of reps.
“They just kind of cycled through,” Heupel said. “A guy may have had a three-and-out and gotten an extra drive to keep the play count relatively close.”
As for how Joe Milton, Hendon Hooker and Harrison Bailey performed? Heupel didn’t go into much details, but the group did a good job of taking care of the football.
“I thought he managed things really well inside the pocket,” Heupel said of Milton. “For Joe and Hendon and for Harrison, some of it is tough because you’re not in a live situation— are you going to be able to make a play and get out of the pocket. I thought all of them did a great job of taking care of the football and were efficient in calling it for the most part. I thought their decision making and what we’re doing in the run game and controlling the pass game too was pretty solid.”
It’s clear that no quarterback had a dominant scrimmage Thursday but Milton taking care of the football is a good sign for Tennessee. Milton’s talent has been evident but his decision making remains a question as he comes to Knoxville with more career interceptions (six) than he does touchdown passes (five).
Heupel high on defensive transfers
While Tennessee was decimated by the transfer portal, the Vols also added a lot of help via the transfer portal. Most of those players arrived after spring practice too.
Kodi Burns praised receiver Javonte Payton for being “exactly what we thought” he would be on Wednesday. Heupel got in on the praise Thursday, focusing on the transfers on the defensive side of the ball.
“For all those guys, they’ve blended in immediately,” Heupel said. “When I say that, you don’t see them consistently out of gap, not being able to get a call and get lined up, you don’t see issues with communication. They’ve blended right into what we’re doing on all three levels. I really believe all those guys are going to have an impact on what we’re doing.”
Transfers like Da’Jon Terry and Juwan Mitchell playing a major role was expected, so it’s encouraging that their transition into the defense has been seamless.
The four other defensive transfers since spring practice— William Mohan, Caleb Tremblay, Brandon Turniage and Kamal Hadden— weren’t expected to be sure fire contributors.
Still, I wouldn’t read Heupel’s comments and think that all four of those guys are going to play major roles this fall. However, it’s clear the first year head coach is pleased with what the transfers have brought to his defense through eight practices.