Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel was impressed by the work of linebacker Keenan Pili coming out of Saturday’s season opener against Virginia.
Heupel revealed Monday that the 6-foot-3, 240-pound transfer received a game ball in what was his first game suited up in a Tennessee uniform.
Pili might not have been the most noticeable player on the field on Saturday, but that just speaks to his ability to be in the right spot at the right time while making the right plays. The former BYU transfer was constantly in the thick of the scrum when he was on the field and clearly provided an athletic and physical presence in the middle of the Vols’ defense.
During a Tuesday morning press conference, Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks explained what Pili did so positively on the field. Banks also touched on the communication that Tennessee’s defense had on the field and described it as “great.”
“Just everything that he brought to practice since he’s been here,” Banks said. “Just great leadership, communication, which we talked about earlier. Just having the ability to command the defense. Just making sure the front is where it needs to be, communicating with (Aaron) Beasley, making sure that everybody is where they need to be at all times is the number one thing.”
Pili was one of five Tennessee players to end the day with four total tackles on Saturday.
“Just his overall physicality with the size that he has,” Banks said. “You want big guys, but obviously in this day and age they have to be able to function in space and he’s able to do those things for us. We’re very pleased with what he brought, just his overall toughness and smarts and communication skills. We’re excited for him.”
Pili’s game ball is indicative of the instant impact that he is having on the Tennessee defense and, frankly, at a position that needed his veteran experience. The Vols boast several young and talented linebackers but didn’t have that experienced starter next to Aaron Beasley to help sail over rough waters. That looks to now be Keenan Pili coming out of training camp and the first game of the season.
No. 9 Tennessee and linebacker Keenan Pili will host Austin Peay this Saturday evening in the Vols’ home opener at 5:00 p.m. ET in Neyland Stadium.
UPDATE at 11:50 a.m. ET: Josh Heupel confirms that linebacker Keenan Pili will not be available for the Austin Peay game after recently suffering an injury. Tennessee does not expect this to be a season-ending injury despite it potentially taking a few weeks.