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What Tennessee Coordinators Said Before Facing Iowa In Citrus Bowl

Joey Halzle
Tennessee OC Joey Halzle. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics.

Tennessee offensive coordinator Joey Halzle and defensive coordinator Tim Banks met with the media in Orlando on Friday morning ahead of the Vols Cheez-It Citrus Bowl matchup against Iowa.

Halzle discussed Nico Iamaleava making his first career start, the growth of Tennessee’s young running backs, his growth in his first season as offensive coordinator and more.

Banks discussed what a pair of veteran defenders have meant to the Vols’ program, the opportunity for young defensive backs due to opt outs, roster management in December and much more.

Here’s everything that Halzle and Banks said on Friday in Orlando.

More From RTI: How Tennessee Freshmen Quarterbacks Have Fared In First Career Starts

Joey Halzle

Opening Statement

“Real quick before we go to questions, just, I know I can speak for the whole offense, really glad to be out here in the great city of Orlando. Obviously for a lot of us it’s very familiar. We spent a lot of time here and great to be back with the Citrus Bowl. I know we’ve all agreed, it’s just a first-class organization all the way. Great bowl. Great experience. Absolutely top flight in this whole here, so we’re honored to be here. Proud to be a part of it and looking forward to going and playing in the great game on the first.”

On what Tennessee has seen from Iowa’s defense on film, what makes it a different challenge

“They scheme well. There’s a very sound, solid, strong defense, top to bottom. You see a lot of physical play up front, especially from the the defensive line. The linebackers, they like to get physical, get their hands on people. And there’s a reason that their defensive numbers are the way they are. That’s why the numbers are the way they are.”

On game planning with Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava making his first career start

“It’s not a tune-up game for a starter. This is a kid making his first start against one of the best defenses in all of college football. But I don’t think you can go into it thinking differently. You gotta take what’s there. Whatever they’re presenting to us, you got to take advantage of it. You’re still going to have to push the ball down the field. You’re going to have to take check downs when they’re presented. We’ll have to run the football well. So football is still football at the end of the game. We got to block well. We got to tackle well. We got to catch and throw. We got to do all that type of stuff. So to do all of that, and then you’re inserting a freshman quarterback in on top of it where he’s just gotta manage the game. He’s got to understand situational football, when to take the risk, when to not. All of that. When to scramble, when is a throwaway a good thing, when’s an incompletion is a positive. All of those type of thoughts for a young quarterback. I think what you see young guys when they’re making first start getting in trouble and sometime, now, he doesn’t handle himself like a young guy, so really confident in that. I think he’s prepared well. I think he’s ready to go. So we’ll see what he’s got on the first.”

On Joe Milton’s time at Tennessee and staying with the Vols and helping Nico Iamaleava prepare for the Citrus Bowl

“Man, what that guy has done for three years for us has been been awesome. Obviously to come in and go through what he did, getting injured and then, obviously, when he stepped in and started playing the way he did, sticking around and not only not being a negative draw on the team, but being a positive influence to it, waiting his time and then stepping in and getting as the full-time starter role. And now here as he’s leaving on his way out, doing everything he can to make sure that Nico is as prepared and ready to play, giving him insight. I can’t say enough positive things about that guy, man. He’s he’s been a great. What a VFL stands for. That’s what I can say about him. He’s just, big-time guy. Good, good character. Great, great ball for us. And I think the Tennessee fans, they should be really appreciative of of his three years here at at the university.”

On what stood out about Tennessee freshman running back Cam Seldon’s development over the course of the season 

“What’s been great to see about Cam is he was at a a school where he played everything in high school. He was playing quarterback, defensive end, running back, returning kicks, doing all that stuff. So it’s been great to see him turn into what I call an actual running back. Meaning, his understanding of protection, his understanding of I can’t just grab the ball and run really fast. I got to let these guys up front set up blocks. Got to pace things. I got to press holds. I got to do all that different kind of stuff. It’s been awesome to see him not just wanna be the big, athletic kid that wants to run fast, but embrace, okay, how do I become a complete and total back? So we have a ton of confidence going into this ball game that he’ll be able to step in and and perform at a high level. Now you you lose two guys that have extremely productive in the SEC for three years. I’m not gonna act like that’s just a plug and play all the time. But if there’s a young kid that can come in and handle it mentally and physically, it’s Cam.”

On handling December roster movement and preparing for a bowl game

“I think on the front end a lot of it is just like, alright, who are we actually playing with? That’s what the big thing you’re getting to now in bowl games when you’re starting your game-week prep.

Plays are great, scheme is great, but the players matter more. So who are we actually playing with? And as you get down to it and you realize, okay, these are the guys we got. Now, how do we put these guys in the best position to go be successful? I think that’s the main thing in bowl season. What that has become is, with the opt outs and with the transfer portal with all that type of stuff, it’s like, who are our 11 that we’re rolling out there with? It’s like, okay, these are our guys now. Now let’s put them in the best position to be successful.”

On where he’s grown over his first year as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator

“I think last year at this point I was just trying to figure out the right way to go about everything. Just trying to figure out how do I work into this? And now as I feel, I’m more comfortable in it, obviously, after a full year of doing it. I have my routine. I know how I need to operate in a day-to-day to make sure I’m as prepared as I need to be on game day, give this team the best chance to go be successful. So it’s morphing from kind of just trying to figure it out, trying to make sure I just don’t screw something up to, okay, this is my routine. This is what I need to do to be successful. This is what I did to feel prepared on game day and really taking that step as far as the day to day of how I just operate with the team, with the staff, and then with the quarterback room still.”

On where Nico Iamaleava’s game has grown the most during his first year at Tennessee

“In his defensive recognition. He really dug into that. A lot of freshmen quarterbacks are just like, cool, teach me the plays and I’ll figure it out. He really wanted to dive into, alright, how do I judge a defense? What am I getting as far as tips? And how do I know when I’m getting pressure? When am I hot? When am I not? He really dug into that. Like I said at the beginning, not like most true freshmen handle themselves. He was big into that side of it. And then mechanically, he’s just, when someone comes in as highly touted as he was, a lot of times they feel like they’re finished products. He wasn’t. He wanted to come in and be like, alright, what do I need to do to take my physical game to the next level as well? So he came in, was completely open with tinkering with the mechanics, his lower body, all of that. And that’s why I think he’s made the growth that he has and that’s why I think that the guys out there with him have the confidence that he’ll go perform at a high level when he’s called upon.”

On having conversations with Nico Iamaleava about what kind of plays, routes and protections he’s most comfortable with

“That last week or the week before the first week of the bowl prep, treat it like a true game. We’ve got we’re ready to play when we break for Christmas. So we had the whole conversation, what are you most comfortable with on third downs? What are you comfortable with in the tight zone? What are you most comfortable with as your first normal-down calls. So all that’s been been talked about. You feel like you know, but until the guy has a full week of prep as the guy, I don’t even think they really know. You know what I mean? Like, they’re kinda following. Like, man, I actually am not comfortable with this. I actually am extremely comfortable with that. So as as we work through that together, I think that’s been a good working relationship. Obviously, as a freshman, not being on the scout team, but being as a two all year, you have a little bit better understanding. But until a guy goes through an entire prep as the guy, they don’t know themselves. Really don’t.”

On what Squirrel White meant to this Tennessee offense this season and what’s ahead for him

“Squirrel, he’s just an explosive play waiting to happen. That’s been one of the biggest things for him is he’s got legit 10.4 track speed out there. So you pull guys like that in a bunch of grass and let them go run really fast. Cool stuff happens. So he’s been the guy that we can rely on to be on. Alright, we need to go try to take the top off of this right now, we need to go try to stretch the defense. Squirrel is a guy that can go out there and do it on any given down, any given snap. So he’s been a big crucial part of this offense.”

On the challenges of tailoring the Tennessee game plan to Nico Iamaleava, compared to how it would be for Joe Milton

“I think it still starts with what defensively makes sense. That’s where it has to start. It can’t be like, well, we got a freshman quarterback, so we’re not gonna do this. I mean, you gotta be smart about the positions you put them in. You don’t wanna put them in any negative spots where you’re like, yeah, this might be a bad play, but let’s see if you can get us out of it. That’s not a thought process you go into with, but it still has to all start with what actually makes sense scheme wise, and then let’s start refining into what he’s most comfortable with.”

Tim Banks

Opening Statement

“Super excited to be here. We want to thank the Citrus Bowl for having us. I can tell you our families and all the players have had a tremendous time here in Florida, in Orlando. So we’re thankful for this opportunity, And we’re definitely looking forward to taking on a really good Iowa team this Monday.”

On the challenges they think Tennessee’s defense can present the Iowa offense, how much the Vols can pressure the quarterback

“We’re obviously always trying to apply some pressure when we can. One of the things that makes Iowa unique is  they’re very rarely off schedule. They work really hard to stay on schedule, I should say. So we got to we got to do a great job stopping the run, putting ourselves in a situation to be able to rush the passer. And so right now, our main priority is making sure that we put ourselves in the situation that would give us a chance to hopefully try to apply some pressure.”

On Tennessee dealing with so many defensive backs entering the NCAA Transfer Portal the last few weeks

“I think the keyword is opportunity. Obviously, we’ve had some transition back there. We wish those guys the best and we’re super happy for the guys that are here. So they’re going to be great opportunities. Some guys that play some, some not, that I haven’t played at all. At the end of the day we believe in the standard regardless of who’s out there. So we’re looking forward to watching the performance Monday. I know these guys have worked really hard and every single person in that room believes in them. And we’re looking forward to watching them perform this Monday.”

On the development of Tennessee linebacker Elijah Herring this season and where he can improve 

“Elijah has had some challenges, obviously, but he’s really done some really good things for us as well. I think at the end of the day he’s a guy who hadn’t played a ton a year prior. Was kind of forced a little bit, starting line up because of injuries early. But I thought week in and week out, he worked his tail off to put himself in the best possible position to be successful. So we love the kid. He’s one of the hardest workers on our team. And I think just like everybody, he has things that he can continue to grow in. And I think he’s really fighting to do that. So we’re excited for him. This obviously will be a great challenge for him, but I know he’s up for it. It’ll be fun.”

On what has made Tennessee edge rusher James Pearce so successful this season and his upside moving forward

“I think the the sky is the limit for James. He’s a tremendous worker for us. We recruited him, we knew he had a tremendous upside. Good size, good length, I should say. But he’s worked really hard to put on a proper weight, to get stronger. Extremely athletic. I think he’s just scratching the surface on how good he can be. He’s obviously made a name for himself as a rusher. But I think he has a lot more versatility that we’re gonna work really hard in the next coming months to make sure that we continue to grow his game. So we’re excited for them. It’s hard to find that type of size with that type of athleticism. And we feel very fortunate to have them part of our program. To watch them grow from the first day he stepped on campus to where we are right now, just makes us extremely proud of the kid.”

On Aaron Beasley’s Tennessee career, his leadership and the dynamic he brings at linebacker

“I think that last statement, a leader. He’s worked really hard. I wouldn’t say he’s the loudest guy when you walk in the room, but I think you can see it in his play, how hard he works, the way the guys respond to him when he does speak to him. So it’s just been awesome. You love to see guys grow and develop and to see where he is right now, we couldn’t be more proud of him. Tremendous worker, instincts off the chart. We’re definitely looking forward to watching him run the team one more time and put it on stage this Monday.”

On what Jaylen McCollough has meant to the Tennessee football program

“It’s been awesome. It’s like having another coach on the field. Extremely bright. Just a pleasure to work with. He’s one of those guys who really loves the game. He’s a guy that text you asking you about different plays in the middle of the night. It’s been awesome. I didn’t even realize it was so many (starts) to be quite honest, which someone brought it to my attention a couple weeks ago. So we’re proud of him. I think it says a lot about him as a man and his durability and being able to fight through some some bumps and bruises. So we’re excited for him. Not only has he been a tremendous player on the field, but definitely a great locker room teammate and a guy that we enjoyed coaching through this ride.”

On Tennessee’s new-look secondary matching up against Iowa’s passing game

“We’re confident in our whole team. Like I said earlier, the standard is the standard, as cliche as that may sound. We’ve preached that from the beginning of the camp to obviously the bowl game. Regardless who’s in the game, there’s a certain level of expectations that come with stepping out on that field. And those guys understand that. And you throw all our records out in thinking the stats and all that stuff. These guys have had a couple weeks to get ready to work on things that they needed to improve on that was different than us. So we’re gonna go out there and put our best foot forward and do everything we can to try to get this victory. And I think those guys have worked their tail off, or they’ve been working their tail off, and they’re excited about that challenge. And we will go out there and fight and and try to get this victory.”

On what the month of December is like for a college football coach, preparing for a bowl game, recruiting and dealing with the NCAA Transfer Portal

“It’s definitely challenging. This is different for me. I’ve been doing this for a couple decades and this is obviously a new landscape for everybody. But it is what it is. You have to be able to navigate through it. I think the programs that will continue to grow, it’ll be the programs that handle it the best. Like I said earlier, we love our guys and the guys that are here. And we wish the guys that left the best. But it’s just the nature of the beast right now. But it’s it’s been really busy. It’s a lot going on. Obviously coaching your team. Obviously, recruiting. But at the end of the day, the University of Tennessee is a great place to be. We don’t have any issues getting guys that wanna be here. There are a lot of players who wanna be here. There’s a lot of guys that are already here. We’re definitely excited about the ones we got and the ones who want to be here.”

On this bowl game being a head start for Tennessee’s new-look secondary heading into the 2024 season, how it’s similar to Nico Iamaleava getting his first start at quarterback

“It’s the same. Anytime you get a chance to get some reps under your belt, a chance to build upon it. Game reps are obviously different than practice reps and having a chance to do it in the Citrus Bowl, on this type of stage, definitely valuable experience. And those guys can build upon it heading to the spring and obviously the fall. So, yea’, it’ll be great for those guys to go out there and and cut their teeth and get this thing going, to give them springboard to build upon it. Absolutely.”

On what Tennessee has seen from an Iowa tight end group that is dealing with injuries

“Versatility is the first thing that comes to mind. Those guys are obviously really good in the run game. With the way they move them around and get them as a focal point in a lot of the pass games, it’s been impressive. Obviously, I’ve seen Iowa from back in the day, other places I’ve been. So they have a great tradition at tight end. So anybody that they recruited to play tight end was probably pretty good at their high school. So they got our respect. The way they block and the way they use those guys in the passing game. We know there’s gonna be a great challenge for our ‘backers and our safeties in terms of the matchups in the pass game. And then obviously in the run game with some of our edge guys being able to defeat some of their (blocks). It’s a challenge and we’re definitely looking forward to it.”

On how he would assess the performance of the Tennessee defense as a whole this season 

“Obviously our goal is to win every single game. Win every single one of them. There are things that you wanna improve on. But at the end of the day, we felt like we made some great strides. We thought we had a very good senior leadership, and we felt like we did a lot of things to help this team move the needle in the right direction. So, yeah, I’m excited about it. I really am. I think we’ve played really good defense most of the year. Obviously, when you don’t win them all, you’re disappointed. I think we’ll take time, obviously, after the season, take a deeper dive, exactly when we can improve and continue to grow. But overall, we felt like we played outstanding.”

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