Tennessee opened its 2023 season with a bang, defeating Virginia 49-13 before a record crowd at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.
The Vols’ offense was stagnant for much of the first half but scored touchdowns on their final two possessions of the first half before finding their stride in the second half. Tennessee’s defense was dominant, controlling the line of scrimmage and allowing just one touchdown.
Tennessee coach Josh Heupel discussed the stagnant offense, the emergence of young defenders and much more.
Here’s everything Heupel said after the win.
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“Thanks to Vol nation for showing up in a big way. Believe we set another Nissan Stadium record for attendance. I think that happened the last time we were here too. Obviously everybody here understands how important the mid state, this area is. First of all, our fanbase, our alumni that are here but also on the recruiting side of it. So great, unique opportunity today to open up this season here in Nashville.”
“Ball game, end of the day it’s a really positive win. Lots of things to take away from it on the positive side. At the same time there’s a lot of ways we can be a whole lot better as a program. Defensively though, I thought the way we started in the first half— three, four possessions for sure on the wrong side of the 50-yard line. They bow up immediately and hold them to a total of three points, I believe. I thought our front four did an unbelievable job of playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage. I thought we tackled well for an opener and did a really good job on third down. Secondary was rock solid early in the football game and that carried over for a majority of the football game. Special teams, offensively there are some things we need to clean up that happened in the first and second quarter. I thought early in the third quarter (we) played solid football and settled into a little bit more of a flow in both areas. As typical, there’s things that we have to clean up. Coaching staff and players alike. At the same time, enjoy every one of these wins and learn how to get better tomorrow when we get back to Knoxville.”
On the difference in the offense in the second and third quarters
“You guys can see a lot of it too. There’s just some subtleties of execution. Catching the football on some big plays. Being more accurate with the football, being a little cleaner in the pocket. It’s not a major overhaul when things aren’t going well, typically, on the offensive side of the ball. 11 guys have to operate as one. I felt like just in general our skill kids were not completely in the flow of the game. Whether it was the heat, new surface, game one— just weren’t quite within ourselves and as the game went on I felt like we operated better in that way.”
On deciding to go for it on fourth-and-five on the game’s opening drive
“Those are difficult situations. You’re trying to, at the end of the day, put your football team in the best position to win. Where we were at on the field, opening drive. One, trusted our guys and, two, the field was flipped and they were in a tough situation if we didn’t pick it up.”
On what he liked out of James Pearce, other young defenders looking to take a step forward
“James played really well today early in the football game. Daevin Hobbs did an unbelievable job in the interior. He’s a young guy whose best football is way out in front of him. But he just continues to get better. You can see his improvement really almost every day on the practice field. I thought he competed really well. Josh Josephs did some really good things early in the football game too. We’ve got a plethora of young guys that need to continue to grow but those guys are going to help us as the season goes on.”
On Dylan Sampson’s four touchdown performance
“That’s a good way to start if you’re a running back. All three of those guys played extremely well. Jaylen Wright I thought ran as physical as he has. The things that we saw in training camp I think you saw today. Doing a great job of hitting holes and running through arm tackles. Doing a good job on the third level too. Jabari Small did a fantastic job. DSamp gets the four touchdowns. Super productive for him. I love what he’s doing. The strength of that room can never be one guy. All those guys are going to be extremely important. You can see that based on the number of touches all those guys got.”
On Tennessee’s defense playing better at the end of last season and why the Vols were able to build on that during Saturday’s opener
“First of all, we’ve got a great coordinator in Tim (Banks). Does a great job of developing a plan every single week. We have enough in our package that we can be multiple in the way that we attack people on the other side of the line of scrimmage. When we first got here, we were at 65 scholarship players. We were hit heavy in the portal, a lot of that on the defensive side of it — not all of it. We were extremely thin. We tried to patch it with some transfers. The guys that we brought in the last two (recruiting) cycles, I think, have done a really good job of helping patch our roster. We have more depth. We’ve got really good coaches that do a great job of developing those guys fundamentally. And our guys have bought into how to compete on every single snap, so you put scheme, coaching, physical development in the weight room and depth, and it allows us to be more aggressive on that side of football.”
On whether Tennessee has settled on a group of five starters in the secondary that it can rely on going forward
“You’re going to see multiple guys rotate on the back end.”
On senior quarterback Joe Milton III’s command of the offense
“I thought command was really solid. I thought he did a good job in the pocket. He escaped at times when needed, and I thought his run reads were really pretty solid. There were a couple throws that he would want back — not far off. Ramel’s running right down the middle of the football field, and we’re just a little bit off. And that’s where I just felt like, early in the ballgame, we weren’t completely settled in. But, at the end of the day, this game’s not going to be perfect in any phase of the game. It’s how you continue to respond and handle yourselves. I thought they continued to compete, finished the first half the right way and came out and started fast in the second.”
On Tennessee rotating eight different players on the offensive line
“All of it was planned, that we were going to rotate those guys. Have great trust in those guys. As the season goes on, you inevitably need to have depth and be able to move people around, so look forward to getting Cooper (Mays) back here, hopefully pretty soon. And, at the same time, love what we’ve done with the guys that have been at center. But the moving parts that we’ve had, how they’ve competed and played, believe that we’ll find more out as we watch (the film) today. But I thought, all in all, a really solid performance from all those guys.”
On Tennessee’s depth and whether the Vols exceeded his expectations with how many players they were able to use during the game
“Man, I don’t think so. We planned on playing a bunch of guys, because they’ve shown that they deserve the opportunity to play. And taking some of those snaps at the end of the day makes us a stronger football team in Week 1, but throughout the course of the season, too. There’s still some moving pieces. And when I say that, man, the depth chart (in) Week 1 is not the same as it’s going to be Week 2, man. There’s continued growth and opportunity for everybody inside of our program and, just for myself, really good football teams continue to get better. That’s mature, veteran guys. It’s young guys inside of your program, so continuing to grow and compete is something that we’ve already talked about inside of our locker room.”
On if there was a level of maturity by fighting through some adversity
“There’s a level of maturity that your defense has to have, to have as many of those situations come up where the ball is on the wrong side of the football field. And to have no panic, no pointing of a finger, just, ‘Hey man,’ a look in your eye and a common thread that we’re gonna go out and compete and get off the football field here. I love that maturity from those guys and from our staff on that side of the football.
“Offensively, there wasn’t any panic. We talk about it dang near every day that if it’s not going good, it’s typically not some major overhaul. It’s 11 guys gotta operate as one. There is some maturity in that there was no panic from them. They were extremely confident. There’s gonna be more hostile environments that we’re gonna play in where that maturity will be tested even more. We gotta continue to grow together for us to handle all of those situations the right way.”
On the defensive cleanness of committing few penalties, giving up little big plays
“Point of emphasis all offseason. How you do anything is how you do everything. The maturity off the field, the maturity inside of our building, the maturity on the practice field, something that we continue to stress. You guys know that I have liked the competitiveness and the accountability and the maturity of this group as we’ve grown the entire offseason. This is step one of the journey. We gotta be true to that every single week, but it certainly was a step in the right direction on the game field for us on that side of football.”
On the biggest fix he wants to make between week one and week two
“Some real subtle things just in personnel and communication, between coaches at times, so nothing major, but continued growth.”
On Jackson Ross’ struggles punting
“Man, imagine going over to a foreign country and playing a game for the first time that you’ve never played. Did I anticipate it? No, but do I understand it? Yeah. He’s gonna be a really good player though. Some of what you saw late from him is what we’ve seen all training camp, so, we believe he’ll continue to get better. Believe Josh (Turbyville) will too. I mean, you saw some big-time kickoffs from him and saw a couple that aren’t up to our standard, but both those guys will be better for it.”
On what he saw from freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava
“Same things that we’ve seen. Really calm, cool. Good demeanor, able to communicate, handle all the pre-snap stuff the right way. Get his eyes in the right place. I thought showed some athleticism. I love the feel in the pocket, being able to step up and get out of it and go make a play with his feet. He’s athletic enough to be using the run game and escape the pocket. And I thought some of the run-pass stuff, he did a good job. Made an athletic throw, didn’t complete it, but throwing across his body on a little slant route that ended up not being completed. But all in all, really solid performance from him.”
On what he saw from Dee Williams in the return game
“Love — you talk about maturity, like competitive composure — I think Dee is as great of an example of that as anybody during the course of this football game. We talked about the specialists earlier, being able to handle something that doesn’t go right and come back and compete. The next play is independent. Dee’s dynamic. You see him on all of our core special teams unit, cover units. He’s running down there, making plays. Elite returner, man. Dynamic. Changes the way the game’s played because of the field position. Everybody in our program loves Dee. Who he is, what he stands for, the teammate that he is. And we love how dynamic he is with the football in the return game, too.”