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Heupel Notes Orange Bowl Presents Opportunity in Many Ways for Vols

Heupel Notes Orange Bowl Presents Opportunity for Vols in Many Ways
Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III wearing the traditional orange and white uniforms. Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics.

Tennessee will take the field in Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium on Friday night against Clemson without three key players, as wide receivers Jalin Hyatt, Cedric Tillman ,and linebacker Jeremy Banks have all opted out. 

Unsurprisingly, all three players have opted out as they prepare for the next stage in their careers. We see it all across college football in bowl season. 

But opt-outs can negatively impact a team such as Tennessee, who will be without three crucial starters. 

Rather than focusing on how his team will fill the voids those players create by opting out, Josh Heupel emphasized that opt-outs are an indicator of when your program is having success. 

“At the end of the day, that’s kind of the landscape of what happens at times inside your program when you’re having success and during the course of bowl season,” Heupel said. “You can see that across the country.”

While Hyatt, Tillman and Banks all opting out at once presents a clear challenge, Heupel shared that bowl season gives the team plenty of time to prepare for those types of situations. 

“The unique thing is you have a couple extra weeks to prepare and plan for those situations,” Heupel said. “You’re not dealing with it in a seven-day span. We lost some really good players. I think that provides unique opportunity.”

What kind of opportunity? Opportunity for guys who have sat all year to show what they can do. Opportunity for guys who will be fighting for a starting job in the spring to give the staff a glimpse of what they bring to the table.

“That’s the tough thing and the great thing about college football is that essentially a quarter of your roster is graduating every single year,” Heupel added. “With that provides new opportunity to go make plays because you’ve got more snaps on the football field. It provides opportunities in leadership. It’s the great thing about college football.

“You’re essentially building your roster and your football team every single January, and that’s always true, but I think in the landscape of college football, it’s certainly true, and more evident and more prevalent now with the transfer portal, too.”

More From RTI: Everything Josh Heupel Said Ahead of the Orange Bowl

One guy who will get a significant opportunity is starting quarterback Joe Milton III. Milton is not starting due to opt-out, as Hendon Hooker will not play due to injury. However, Milton is a prime example of how a key player’s absence can present a massive opportunity for someone. 

Milton will likely be involved in a quarterback competition in the spring with incoming five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava and redshirt sophomore Tayven Jackson, but Milton can get a leg up on the competition by playing well against a top-tier defense like Clemson.

After transferring to Tennessee and winning the starting job in 2021, getting hurt, benched, and sitting behind Hendon Hooker for nearly two seasons, Milton has arguably the most crucial game of his life on Friday night. 

Heupel touched on Milton’s opportunity and how unique the Florida native’s story is in today’s college football world.

“I think it’s a unique story in today’s atmosphere inside of college football that someone is that talented and has had some success at the quarterback position, ends up being moved to the No. 2 spot, sees that there’s value in the staff cares about me, the staff can help develop me, I can perform inside of this offense, and my traits fit this, and I’ve got to stay the course because I need to grow,” Heupel said. 

“That can be mentally, it can be emotionally, it can be fundamentally. I think in today’s world for a young man to see that and be able to say, hey, I’m going to sit here, I’m going to compete every single day with Hendon or whoever that young man might be and to handle it the right way is a great story. He’s prepared like he’s going to be the starter, all off-season, all training camp, all season long. He’s continued to grow. We’re playing a great opponent, great defense. It’s going to take all 11 to go out there and perform at a high level tomorrow. But I’m excited to see Joe go compete, man, and excited for this opportunity for him.”

Milton is one of several Vols who will be looking to take advantage of the opportunity the bowl game presents. Opt-outs at those other positions mean more playing time for players further down the depth chart, especially the younger ones.

Tennessee’s season ended on a sour note, but there’s no denying the Orange Bowl is significant for the Vols in many ways. From players’ opportunities to winning a game as prestigious as the Orange Bowl to finishing an excellent season on a high note, Heupel stressed that Friday night’s matchup is paramount.

“Friday is important. This is the last game for this football team this season,” Heupel said.

“We talk about finishing. We talk about legacy. This group that is graduating and heading on, this is a way to finish it and leave a strong legacy at Tennessee.”

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