Tennessee HC Josh Heupel. Photo via Tennessee Athletics.
Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel met with the local media Tuesday afternoon before the Vols open up fall practice Wednesday morning.
Heupel enters his third season as Tennessee’s coach with an 18-8 (10-6 SEC) record leading the Vols to 11-wins in 2022— the Vols’ best season in over two decades.
Entering his third fall camp in Knoxville, Tennessee is working in a new quarterback, two new starting offensive linemen and three more NFL Draft selections.
Heupel discussed what he’s looking for from Joe Milton in camp, the difference in Tennessee’s program now compared to two years ago and much more. Here’s everything Heupel said.
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“Great to see everybody. This is the best time of the year. I’m excited to open up training camp tomorrow with our guys. We’ve had a great summer, and the players have been fantastic. They’ve really been that way since we got back in January. Each part of our offseason, they’ve handled themselves with great maturity and been extremely competitive. Individually, I feel like we’ve made a lot of strides. As you get a chance to see some of these guys here as we open up training camp, I really like the position they’ve put themselves in physically to be ready to go compete this training camp. (I’m) excited about the continuity in what we have coming back as a staff. Over the course of our three years, being able to maintain the core group of our guys, I think that has allowed us to continue to grow in our culture, continue to grow in our schemes and build on the trust that we’ve built over the first two years within our program, players and coaches alike. Excited to kick it off with these guys here tomorrow and start this training camp. It’s a long month. It’s a process throughout the course of the season, and it’s a process during the course of training camp to get ourselves ready to go play here in 31 days when we open up in Nashville.”
On the state of the program now compared to two years ago
“First of all, we have the cornerstone pieces of who we are. The foundation has been laid. Great trust and accountability inside of our walls. Our players, just their daily habits, who they are, what they’re about, how they compete individually with themselves and collectively as a group, too. We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time. Our roster — I’ve said it before — that first fall we had 65 scholarship players. We’re close to 85 (today). We have real depth, real competition, really at every position. That’s true of our veterans that are here. There’s a lot of young guys, 18 of them that were with us during the course of spring ball. I expect them to be a much more mature and complete players when we step on the field tomorrow, but certainly as we grow during the course of training camp. There’s just great competition everywhere. Our athleticism, strength, all those things have continued to improve. Our functional movement, we’re continuing to take strides. But this is the time of year where you have to go out and earn it every day.”
On the benefit of continuity on his coaching staff
“The people that we’ve been able to promote have been within the building, within those position units. They have connection and relationships with those players, so it’s not like you’re starting over from scratch, even when you promote somebody. I think it’s really important, inside of your program — at any point, but it was certainly important where we took this program over, trying to build something — at every phase of every single year, we’ve never had to completely reset. We’ve been able to continue. We come off of last year’s season, they come back in late January, it’s about, ‘OK, this is where we were. This is who’s back. This is how we grow.’ As a staff, continuing to push on our scheme, fine tune who we are and what we want to do. Our players continuing to grow in every facet, from our strength program to what we’re doing schematically and fundamentally. It has allowed us to continue to grow really quickly, and I don’t think you can understate that part of it as we’ve grown here over the first two years and heading into year three.”
On the leadership from linebackers Aaron Beasley and Keenan Pili
“Both of those guys have dramatically continued to improve their bodies. I think functionally the traits that we’re looking for, they’ve continued to improve on. I think you guys will see that as you get a chance to watch some of the practice. (Aaron) Beasley is a guy that had not played a lot of football, grows into a role on the football field and plays at a really high level, certainly in the Orange Bowl last year. As that has taken place, he’s been able to be very intentional in how he wants to grow as a leader too. He’s a part of our leadership council. He has great influence inside the linebacker room, but really across our defense in our football team too. He’s continued to grow in his maturity outside of the game. With the middle of that defense, it’s important that you have great leadership and that they’re willing and able to communicate at a really high level. That’s off the field and that’s during the course of play as well. Keenan Pili, a guy that has great maturity and athletic traits that we were looking for. He’s the guy that in spring ball was just trying to figure out what we’re doing schematically and how he needs to improve every day. This summer, he took a huge leap in having command of the guys around him. The maturity of both of those guys I think will show itself as we go through training camp and as we get into season.”
On how to plant good seeds and develop good habits in fall camp that show up in the season
“You want good seeds that are planted. Practice habits, and how that affects your health during training camp and during the course of the season. The ability to play each play independently, no matter what happened on the previous play. Playing harder than your opponent even though you’re competing against yourself during the course of training camp. How do you take care of the ball? How do you go attack the ball and on the defensive side of it? You have to constantly grow in this game. You’re resetting in each phase and every offseason. This is the last quarter of our offseason. It’s important that you develop the habits, and you develop the leadership. We try to be intentional with that even during the course of training camp by continuing to give those guys ownership. They have to go be problem solvers when we get out and we’re playing against an opponent this fall. You have to put those guys in a position to do some of those things.”
On the depth behind offensive lineman Cooper Mays and the overall health of the program
“I do think there’s great competition on the offensive line. That’s true at the tackle position. You talk about Cooper (Mays), his stability and what he brings to the offensive line. He’s a guy that’s played at a really high level. He’s one of the guys that continues to develop his ownership and leadership inside of our program. I really love what he’s done all offseason. That backup center spot will be a competition. We have multiple guys that will be competing for that including some young guys in our program. Also, Parker Ball has been here for a while. That’s one of the things personnel wise that we have to figure out here as we get through the next couple of weeks.
“The health of our program, as far as our individuals go, we’re in a pretty good spot. There’s one guy that won’t be with us this fall. Pakk (Kwauze) Garland, just from the injury last fall, hasn’t gotten himself in a position where he’s cleared. It’s not because he hasn’t been putting in the work. It’s just him in the process that he’s had to go through with that injury. He’ll be a part of our program but will not be playing this fall.”
On what he liked about receiver Dont’e Thornton’s tape and how he has adjusted to UT
“He has great length, natural hands and (is) a great route runner. He had one of the fastest GPS speeds in the transfer portal. I’ve loved how he’s approached coming into our program by wanting to earn it. He’s become a relentless worker. He cares about his performance and how he prepares in a really good way. He’s spent a lot of time understanding and trying to grow inside of our offense really quickly. I’m looking forward to seeing him this fall. There’s great competition and some flexibility at the wide receiver spot. I’m looking forward to seeing how that unfolds here during the course of training camp.”
On how refreshing it is to come off of a New Year’s Six bowl victory and have the NCAA violations behind them
“The NCAA stuff being behind us is huge for us as a program, as much as anything on the recruiting side of it. I said that probably a week ago at media days as well. As far as how I’m different or what’s different about the program, we have two and a half years of built-up trust and chemistry with your staff and your players. At the end of the day, how we approach and how I approach every single day, it’s not any different. This is a highly competitive game. You have great players and coaches that we’re going to be going against all fall. You have to reset and go earn it every single day. We have a real sense of urgency inside of our program that starts with me having a sense of competitiveness and drive. At the end of the day, there were a lot of great moments last year. None of that stuff comes with us. At the end of the day, last year there were a lot of goals that we didn’t reach. This group has been really intentional about pushing forward and putting ourselves in a position to go chase some of those things.”
On what a productive camp looks like for quarterbacks Joe Milton III and Nico Iamaleava and if that looks any different for either of them
“Yeah, a little bit. They’re different as far as the stages that they’re at inside of the quarterback room, understanding our offense and fundamental things like how we want them to play. I expect both of them to compete and lead at a high level. I think it’s really important that those guys have great energy and urgency and that transcends not just through our offense, but also through our football team for all of our players. This is a game that’s never going to be perfect. Being able to reset from one play to the next, I think, is one of the most important traits that you have as a competitor and as a player in this game. For those two guys being able to do that and then master what we’re doing offensively will be really important.”
On Ramel Keyton’s role as a veteran within the team
“He’s somebody who probably puts as much time or more time than anybody inside of our program into the extra work. You can come up here late at night and see him on the jugs. He cares and he prepares the right way. He’s continued to grow in what we’re doing and understanding our schemes. He’s continued to heighten his fundamental technique at the wide receiver position. That was a huge part of why he took advantage of the opportunity when Cedric Tillman went down last year and played at a really high level. I anticipate him continuing to do that and having a great training camp. I’m really excited about what he’s done in a short amount of time with us.”
On his thoughts about the edge rushers and the LEO position
“One of the position groups where there’s real depth, competition, length and athleticism. Those are some of the traits that we’re looking for off the edge. Some of that is inside too with some of the guys that we’ve brought in. I’m looking forward to great competition. I’m looking forward to us continuing to develop in our ability to affect the quarterback, and not just doing that with pressures all the time but being able to do it with the four guys up front. At the end of spring, I felt like we made some real strides and that a lot of our guys that were back and a part of our program. We’ve had a couple of new guys that came in here in late May, early June too. I anticipate those guys continuing to learn what we’re doing, but playing with great technique and competing for a spot. Right now, this time of year, you have to show that you can master what we’re doing and go take the job. It’s your job to prove that you’re going to play at a championship level. Once that happens, then we have to find a role for those guys. I anticipate those guys doing that during the course of training camp.”
On the depth at the cornerback position
“The five guys that came in in January, I’m really excited about their athleticism and physical traits. They were super mature in the way they competed and handled themselves on the field and off the field. I anticipate those guys, after going through an offseason, going through spring ball, and having an opportunity to digest all that and go back through some installs this summer, when we hit the ground being a very different player while still understanding that they’re going to have to continue to grow throughout the course of training camp. The veterans a year ago were kind of nicked up during training camp. We got nicked up during the course of the season. We need those guys to stay healthy. We need them to be on the field. We need them to compete and get those reps. You can’t be the player that you need to be if you’re not practicing during this time of year. We need all of those guys playing and competing here during the course of training camp for them to be their best. It’s one of the positions where there’s great competition. With every position in our program, you have to go earn it here during the next two and a half to three weeks of training camp and prove that you’re going to play at a championship level. I’m really looking forward to the competition at that spot.”
On the difference in the program today compared to when he took it over two years ago
“It’s different in that you have two years of experience with the majority of your roster. You have a culture that is built. There’s continuity. There’s also an understanding from your players. They know exactly what they are getting into. They know each phase of our offseason and what training camp is going to look like. Our staff has been able to remain intact for the most part. Now, we are able to just go out and compete on a daily basis. We don’t have a lot of issues with our guys. They do a phenomenal job on the field as well as outside of this building in the classroom. It’s truly about us individually and collectively becoming our best and being very pointed when we come in here. We are going to enjoy what we are doing and have a lot of fun, but we are also going to compete at an elite level.”
On what he looks for in players that allows him to trust them going into the season
“Emotionally, being able to reset from play to play. Master the concepts that we have in all three phases. Play with fundamentals and technique. Be a consistent competitor. Show that you’re going to play harder than your opponent for 60 minutes every day when we get on the grass. Be a great teammate. For the guys that have great leadership roles, it’s making sure that those guys keep growing in that too. It will show up during the course of the season.”
On his favorite moments with the team since the end of the season
“For me, I love being on the grass with them, so what we did during the course of spring ball. I love having the opportunity to reset and enjoy time with them outside of the game too. That could be guys coming over to my house during the course of the summer, me beating them up on the basketball court, or the softball tournament that we had. I love those team-building moments as well. Today, we walked upstairs and got to have a conversation about what training camp is going to look like, and you could feel the excitement and energy. It’s the daily interaction with this group. I love being around these guys, and they love being around each other too.”
On if there’s been any difference with Joey Halzle at offensive coordinator
“Obviously, he’s going to have to address the offense at times. I chose him because we’ve got great trust in him. Philosophically, very similar. He sees the game through the same type of lens. It’s been a seamless transition. Our players have great trust in him. Excited about what he’s done up until this point.”
On the benefits of Joe Milton III being able to start the final two games of last season
“For all of the guys—Joe included—that had the opportunity to play late in the year, including the Vanderbilt game when we had a few guys nicked up to the bowl game, and that experience in some ways is a springboard to the 2023 season. It gives all those guys great confidence in what they’ve done up until that point to go play that way when given the opportunity. For Joe, nobody was surprised that he played that way inside of the program. We had seen the way he worked and competed and how he had continued to grow as a person but also as a player. Anticipated him playing that way. At this point, what happened in January or December has nothing to do with where we go. Those guys being focused on continuing to grow every day, that’s really important.”
On if he sees a big difference looking back at his first two teams at Tennessee
“In this game, you have to go out and take it every Saturday. There is nothing given. You have to be mature enough to go reset and handle everything that comes at you. That’s play to play, day to day, and week to week. The difference in year one and year two is continued growth and understanding in what we’re doing. A lot of the players were back. Our roster continued to improve. We got more depth in year two. Continuity with our staff allowed us to continue to push forward in a positive way. I think the continued growth and accountability and trust inside of our walls, love and respect for each other and the program and how we attack every single day. The continued growth in those areas shows up in the performance, and it shows up on the scoreboard that everybody sees. Everybody, every program around the country does all the big things. It’s the little things that matter, that make the difference. Those are the things that our coaches and players have to be focused on during the course of training camp. They’ve done that, continued to grow this offseason but you don’t take anything for granted. You have to continue to grow in all those areas.”
On the difference in depth at linebacker now compared to when he started
“Length, athleticism, accountability every single day, growth inside the meeting room, understanding scheme—not just running around sideline to sideline—but understanding what your job is and what your keys are and being able to play with fundamentals and the right steps. We were really thin in year one. We’ve added length, athleticism, more competition. That showed up on defensive snaps. It showed up on our special teams a year ago as well. BJ (Brian Jean-Mary) has done a great job of recruiting that room and recruiting what we need to that room too.”
On the pride he has when former players succeed in the NFL
“I do keep up with them. Obviously, it’s tough to have a ton of conversations in the middle of training camp. All those guys, guys that played for us and guys I’ve gotten to know that played here before I got here, I sent all those guys a good luck text as they were getting ready for training camp. Excited to see their success and their growth. Guys are going into the league for year one, I know there’s a lot of anticipation and some nervousness because you’re going into something that you haven’t been in yet. What those guys have done, how they’ve grown and also how they’ve played, really excited to see the success of the guys that just went into it, but also the success of the VFLs. I’m excited to see those guys play on Sundays and make plays.”
On what Alec Abeln, Kelsey Pope and other young coaches bring to the staff
“Great energy. They’re dynamic personalities that do a great job of building relationships in the recruiting realm. They have a complete understanding of what we’re doing offensively. They’re great teachers in the room. They connect with the players. They’re able to meet the players where they’re at and help them grow to what we need them to be. In every way inside our program, they’ve continued to help us push forward. Two great young coaches that we love having in the building.”