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.
Heupel opening statement: Have had a really good week. Have to finish it the right way. We have a great opportunity here in a rivalry game playing one of the great teams in college football so our guys have been excited about it, working really hard and excited to get down there on Saturday.
Question: You guys said you had a preseason plan to use Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small interchangeably. They’ve only played two games together due to injury. How has that effected your plan?
Heupel: I’m not sure we’ve been able to finish those two games with that sort of mindset. At the end of the day, we feel like both of those guys can play at a really high level— felt that way in training camp. It’s maybe pressed the guy who’s been able to play in taking a bulk of the work during the course of that ball game. You lose the ability to keep them as fresh as you may want to in the course of a ball game.”
Q: Being a former quarterback, what stands out most about how Bryce Young plays the position?
Heupel: He’s smart, competitive, accurate with the football. Obviously he has dynamic play makers around him from the receivers to the tight end to the running back. Offensive line does a great job with protection but you can tell that he understands what his pre snap read is and where he’s supposed to go with the ball once he sees the post snap movement from the defense.
Q: Tennessee has lost 14 straight games to Alabama. How tough is it to have a rivalry when that’s the case?
Heupel: For us, it’s really important that we continue to build the culture and build our program. Absolutely, it’s important to get a win in this football game and rivalry between the two schools. For us, it’s about controlling the controllables, continuing to grow, continuing to prepare the right way. Our players continue to get better week-by-week and this is our next opportunity.
Q: Do you feel like this is a legit rivalry game given the circumstances?
Heupel: Yeah for sure. The historic nature of it, absolutely.
Q: How’s Hendon Hooker looking through the first half of this week?
Heupel: He’s still day-to-day at this point. Getting some work on the field. As we get to the end of the week we’ll know if he’ll be available for this one.
Q: What have you seen from Brian Robinson and how important is it to put the clamps on Alabama’s running game?
Heupel: The run game is extremely important. It changes how the game is played, in particular on third downs. Their ability up front to move people and change the line of scrimmage— their tight ends do a nice job of it as well. Their RPO game off of it causes issues too. You have to be able to win your one-on-ones up front. That’s your d-line and linebackers. We have to do a good job in the run game. Otherwise, we’re going to be playing on their terms over the course of the game.
Q: When you have a rivalry game like Alabama vs. Tennessee do you set the players aside to talk about it?
Heupel: For sure you talk about the historic nature of the football game. The players that have been here understand the expectation and what this game means to people. Absolutely, they have an understanding of it but you talk about it and show some of those things too.
Q: What attributes besides his arm strength do you like about Joe Milton?
Heupel: He’s competitive inside the building with the way he prepares. He cares about his teammates in a great way. There’s been some things he’s done at a really high level in the pass game and in the run game too. There’s been times where he hasn’t executed the way that he’s fully capable of. At that point, that’s the growth and maturity and maturation of a quarterback. You have to continue to grow.
Q: Have you see any of that growth in practice?
Heupel: Yeah, for sure.
Q: Henry To’o To’o was already in the transfer portal when you get here. Did you all have any realistic conversations about him staying or had that ship already sailed?
Heupel: I think that ship, in his mind, had probably already sailed. He was no longer on campus. Was not here in Knoxville and was back home.
Q: What have been your impressions of Alabama’s defense?
Heupel: They’re front seven makes it extremely difficult to run the football. Long, violent, athletic, they disrupt you, eat up your double teams. Linebackers are athletic, play fast over the top and can go tackle in space. Their safeties do a really good job of being involved in the run game when they ask them to. They’re fully gapped out. They make it difficult which is what the numbers tell you. At the same time they have the ability to rush the passer. They do that with pressures, they’re able to do just with their four up front because of their athleticism too. The run game is difficult but the pass game is too and that’s because of their personnel in the back end but also their ability to get to the quarterback.
Q: What have you seen from your banged up offensive line heading into Saturday?
Heupel: I’ve seen some positive things. I don’t think we’ve played as consistent as we’re capable of. A part of that has been because of the moving parts we’ve had up front too. This will be a big one. On the road, handling the crowd noise, doing a great job in the run game. We have to stay out of third-and-long against these guys and then being able to pick up their pressures on third down will be a big part of the ball game.