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 Kentucky.
Heupel opening statement: We finished up our Wednesday practice. Guys had a really good day on the grass today coming off a bye week. Hopefully able to finish the week with guys that are more healthy than they were previously. Get some guys back from the Alabama game. Looking forward to Kentucky. Really good football team. Should be a great environment on Saturday night. A big game for us. One that our guys are really excited about to go out and compete.
What do you remember about coaching with Mark Stoops at Arizona in 2005
Heupel: Defensive coordinator there. Did a great job schematically, organizationally and being able to change week-to-week. Really good recruiter. I was there early in the process of building that program there and they did a great job.
Offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said when your offense gets a first down it typically has a lot of success. Do you try to avoid substituting in the middle of a drive so the defense can’t sub?
Heupel: It just depends on the game plan. It fluctuates week-to-week and based on our personnel. The longer the drive the more subs that we’ll have throughout the course of that drive.
JaVonta Payton’s five touchdowns have come within the first 20 minutes of a game. Is there any reason it’s worked out like that?
Heupel: That’s just the way it’s unfolded early for him. Not designed that way. We just haven’t hit a big play to him later in the ball game. JaVonta has done a lot of positive things here. Getting here at the beginning of training camp, accelerating his growth curve, I do think the last third of the season he has a chance to continue to grow in what we’re doing and be a bigger part of what we’re doing.
Given the injuries you’ve dealt with on the offensive line, are you proud or surprised about what they’ve been able to accomplish?
Heupel: Before the first ball game with the media (I) openly talked about that as a position where we were relatively thin and couldn’t afford for anyone to get banged up. You know, about five games into the season we lost a guy and it’s a unit that really cohesively hasn’t played together a whole lot. There’s been a lot of moving parts. They’ve fought, competed and grown as an entire group, individually too throughout the course of the season. Do think we have a chance to be our healthiest here on the back half of the season. They’ve been really efficient and done some really good things in the run game. Protections, at times, haven’t been as clean as they need to be, but overall really proud of the way they’ve competed.
What is your headspace going into this game against someone many people consider to be your rival?
Heupel: Only game we get this week and one that our kids are preparing in a really good way this week, I feel like. It’s a big ball game. For us, it’s the next challenge for us. They’re really good upfront on both sides of the line of scrimmage. They’re a smart football team in that they don’t really beat themselves. You have to go up there and compete for 60 minutes and play smart football.
What are you doing to address what you see as Kentucky’s greatest threat?
Heupel: Defensively, have to do a great job of being gapped out to handle the run game and take away explosive plays. Offensively, you have to be really efficient on what you’re doing in the run game. They don’t give up a bunch of explosive plays in the pass game. You have to be highly efficient. It’s what Mississippi State did a week ago.
How big of a challenge is this Kentucky offensive line for your front seven?
Heupel: Big challenge. They’re big, strong, physical. Do a great job of getting a hat on a hat. You watch them, they get a ton of movement up front in distorting and changing the line of scrimmage. We have to do a great job of communication in the first and second level. Third level as well when safeties are in the bit. We have to have some block construction too and be able to make plays when we get off of it.
How does players entering the transfer portal this late in the season affect what you do from a planning perspective at the quarterback position?
Heupel: For us as a program, next man up. If you’re the two, you better be ready. If you’re the three, you better be ready. You don’t know when your opportunity is coming. You better prepare in a great way. We try to get those opportunities over the course of practice to prepare and continue to sharpen their skills so if they get it they’ll be ready to play. I think that’s something you’re constantly dealing with. Not just because of the transfer portal but because you’re always trying to develop depth on your roster.