Tennessee football has had a completely different vibe around the program ever since Josh Heupel took over as head coach in January 2021.
Fifteen games into Heupel’s tenure in Knoxville, the Vols are moving in the right direction. Tennessee landed in the top 15 of this week’s AP Poll, the Vols highest ranking since the COVID-19 impacted 2020 season and the 2016 season before that.
Tennessee is still far from perfect, but the needed energy level and effort is rarely lacking these days in Knoxville.
But why do Tennessee players play so hard for their second year head coach?
“He believes in us,” Tennessee receiver Jalin Hyatt said. “When you have a head coach that believes in you, believes in what you can do, it makes your game go to a whole ‘nother level. When I was going through my struggles last year he believed in me last year. That’s why I go so hard. That’s why this team goes so hard, because he believes in us.”
Hyatt had a limited role in his first season under Heupel, catching 21 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers were nearly identical to his freshman season stats under former coach Jeremy Pruitt.
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Still, Hyatt saw the success of other Tennessee receivers — especially fellow slot receiver Velus Jones Jr.
The opportunity to replace Jones’ production drove Hyatt this offseason, and the way Heupel utilized Volunteer receiver’s skills gave Hyatt an abundance of trust in his head coach.
“Obviously, he knows what we need to do,” Hyatt said. “What we need to accomplish to get to the level we want to get to and to the places we want to get to and the SEC Championship. We just want to keep following their path.”
Two games into his junior season and Hyatt is playing at the highest level of his whole career. Hyatt caught a team-high 11 passes in the Vols’ win at then-No. 17 Pitt and has 101 yards and a touchdown two games into the season.
Hyatt and the Vols look to continue their strong start to the season Saturday when they host Akron at Neyland Stadium. Kick-off is at 7 p.m. ET with the game streaming on the SEC Network Alternate Channel and ESPN+.