After playing eight games in as many weeks — with the last four coming against conference opponents — Tennessee’s week nine bye was very necessary.
Key Vols like defensive tackle Elijah Simmons, Cade Mays, Warren Burrell and Theo Jackson were out or injured during Tennessee’s loss at Alabama.
Other starters like Hendon Hooker, Tiyon Evans and Cooper Mays played against the Crimson Tide but weren’t at 100%.
That made the focus of Tennessee’s bye week to get healthy heading into a critical matchup with Kentucky and the home stretch of the 2021 season.
“A big part of it was just getting our guys healthy,” Heupel said of the bye week. “I think we made some progress in that way over the bye week. Looking forward to getting back on the field with these guys tomorrow.”
The Vols are 4-4 (2-3 SEC) heading into the month of November, needing two wins to reach bowl eligibility in Heupel’s first season.
That goal feels likely with South Alabama and Vanderbilt still on Tennessee’s schedule. However, this week’s matchup at No. 18 Kentucky is a very winnable game. The week 10 matchup is projected to be the most competitive game left on the schedule.
Tennessee opened as four-point underdogs at Kentucky but the line is already moving down, settling at around Kentucky -1.5 as of Monday afternoon.
At his Monday press conference, the media asked Heupel about the status of Tiyon Evans, Cade Mays and Elijah Simmons.
“I don’t want to say anything concrete at this moment,” Heupel said. “I do think all those guys are leaning towards having the opportunity to play. We gave most of those guys the bulk of the time off last week. Seeing those guys back in the building today moving around a little bit. We’ll figure out more when we get on the field Tuesday, Wednesday but I think those guys will have an opportunity to play.”
That’s potentially big news for Tennessee with its lack of depth along the offensive line and with the playmaking ability of Evans.
Heupel’s comments don’t necessarily mean that those players will be available Saturday. The first year head coach said that much and expressed optimism that Evans would be available for the Ole Miss game. The junior college running back didn’t end up dressing out against the Rebels.
If Mays is able to go in Lexington it would be the first game since the SEC opener against Florida that Tennessee’s offensive line is at full strength. Injuries have hampered center Cooper Mays off-and-on this season. The sophomore returned to the starting lineup against Alabama.
A fully healthy Tennessee offensive line would be a big plus for the Vols’ offense before facing a strong Kentucky defensive front. The Wildcats’ rush defense ranks fourth in the SEC.