Josh Heupel spoke to the media Wednesday morning during his weekly appearance on the SEC Coaches Media Teleconference.
Here’s everything the Vols’ head coach had to say before Tennessee’s matchup with Ole Miss.
Opening statement: Just finished up our Wednesday practice here. The guys have had a great couple days on the field in preparation for Ole Miss. Huge test for us as a football program. Really good team that’s coming in here. For them, it starts with their offense- highly explosive. We have to do a great job of winning the line of scrimmage and then win some one-on-ones on the outside. Have to try and find a way to create some turnovers and change the field position over the course of the football game. Have to play all three phases. Excited. Our fanbase is recognizing the effort and progress we’re making on the field. We have a sell out crowd. I’m excited for the environment on Saturday. The crowd needs to be a huge part of the football game, make it tough on them to communicate and make it an advantage for us. I can’t wait to see the stadium checkerboard out and go compete and have some fun Saturday night.
Question: How excited are you that you all were able to sell out Neyland Stadium so quickly in your tenure?
Heupel: We have the greatest fanbase in America as far as our stadium looks the way that it does. For them to recognize what’s going on on the field as far as the effort, strain and progress that are players are making. Excited for that. Personally excited to go through a Vol walk and see about 45,000 fans there then come out to a checkerboard stadium that’s packed out. But excited for our players and the effort they’ve put in in the 8.5 plus months that we’ve been here. It’s an exciting opportunity for our players and like I said after the football game last week, and I said it this week too, our fanbase has to play a part in this football game. They have to make it extremely difficult for them to communicate and help us on Saturday night. Looking forward to that environment.
Q: Were you surprised that it’s a sell out?
Heupel: I don’t know if surprise, from the time that we started this thing I’ve talked about the journey we’re on this season and the race we’re in— in some ways against ourselves— to get as good as we can as fast as we can. Our kids continue to buy into the process, man. They are straining, we are getting better. Excited that our fanbase recognizes that too and I do, actually, believe we’re playing an exciting brand of football. Defensively, the aggressiveness and style of play, the physicality and how hard our players are playing. Offensively, a brand of football that we’re bringing to it. I expect us to be able to continue to sell out Neyland Stadium.
Q: What’s been your message to your team about how Ole Miss going for it on fourth down affects the game?
Heupel: I think you need to understand that third down is played like second down in a lot of respects and understand that they’re playing with four downs— not just at the 50-yard line— but really not the minus side of the territory in that one to two range in particular. You have to do a great job of making it difficult on the quarterback, you have to reset from one play to the next. What we do on offense I think helps our defense prepare and be ready for this football game too. They’ve seen it and understand the tempo portion of it. They’ve seen it all spring and all training camp.”
Q: When going for it on fourth down, what’s the difference between reckless and smart?
Heupel: It’s the analytics but it’s also the feel and flow of the ball game. Where your personnel is, how you feel with your calls in that situation and what the flow of the game says.
Q: Do the offense and defense feeds off each other in these strong first quarters?
Heupel: Yeah, I think I started my press conference last week talking about our defense after the football game. I think that they’ve played extremely physical, communicated really well and found a way to get off the field— particularly early in the football game. All three phases of the game can play off of each other. When momentum’s going your way you want to build on it. I think we’ve done that the last couple of weeks. If it’s not going perfect you have to be a mature competitor and flip the momentum. I think our players understand the effort and strain you have to maintain for 60 minutes.
Q: Does the fact that you’ve beaten Lane (Kiffin) twice when he was at FAU and you were at UCF help at all confidence wise?
Heupel: There’s certainly some similarities from him as far as what they’re doing offensively and what he did at FAU. There’s some changes too with who he’s brought in and his offensive coordinator has some similarities to what we do, actually. These are two different programs with completely different programs, right? With completely different players. This is a different environment as we get ready to go play each other.
Q: It’s better to be 2-0 than 0-2 against him, right?
Heupel: You always want to look up at the scoreboard and be on the right side of it, for sure.
Q: How would you evaluate your receiving core in the pass and run game?
Heupel: I like the growth that we’ve seen from the wide receiver position from where we started week one to who we are now. Velus (Jones) is playing more inside than outside the last couple of weeks— that’s a little bit of a change from where we started. I think they continue to improve and that’s in every area. They improve in their on field practice habits, they improve in their consistency as a wide receiver, recognizing coverage, sitting in the right spot, getting open, defeating man press, being in sync with the quarterback. They’ve done a really good of things we’re asking them to do to block down the football field as well in the run game. A lot of our runs have perimeter takes on them too and I think they’ve done a really good job of blocking for those plays. Those are really just an extension of the run game for us. Those are physical plays and those guys continue to improve in all of those areas.
Q: How much did the competition with Joe (Milton) make Hendon (Hooker) better?
Heupel: Competition inside of your building, inside of your position group, is the most important thing you have as a coach because it is a great motivating factor for them. It pushes them when they’re on the practice field. It pushes them when they’re in the meeting room— your consistently in a competitive environment. But it also pushes them when you’re not around as a coach. It forces them to make good, smart, right decisions when they’re not around you. We use the phrase ‘iron sharpens iron’ around here and the strength of one position group can never just be one guy. They’ve found ways to make each other better. That’s in competition with each other but also in supporting each other. They do a great job of helping each other out in the week of preparation too.