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Front Page - Friday, October 1, 2021

‘Thin’ Vols hit the road with uncertainty at quarterback

Coach Josh Heupel says his “young guys have got to continue to grow and be ready to play.” - Photo by Jerry Denham |The Ledger

It was a long shot for Tennessee to secure the first SEC victory of the Josh Heupel era against Florida in The Swamp.

The next two weekends, however, provide a chance for the Vols to break through.

Tennessee has winnable games against Missouri and South Carolina before facing a challenging stretch of opponents in No. 12 Ole Miss, No. 1 Alabama, Kentucky and No. 2 Georgia.

The Vols hung with No. 10 Florida for a half before the Gators took control in a 38-14 victory last weekend that extended their dominance in the rivalry to 16 wins in the last 17 meetings.

Tennessee (2-2, 0-1) travels to play at Missouri (2-2, 0-0) Saturday afternoon. The Vols have won the past two games against Mizzou. The Tigers are coming off an overtime loss to Boston College.

Heupel has some familiarity with Missouri. He was the offensive coordinator for the Tigers in 2016-17.

Tennessee was outscored 21-0 in the second half against Florida. The Vols blamed their lack of execution, with dropped passes and penalties hindering them in the final 30 minutes.

Knowing Tennessee’s recent history and doomsday outlooks that tend to emerge, senior defensive back Alontae Taylor was quick to reassure everyone the Vols wouldn’t succumb to adversity.

“We won’t fall apart, let me start off with that,” Taylor says. “We are going to get closer as a team, we are going to watch film and continue to build that bond.

“Come next week, we will handle that when it comes.”

Although it’s only been four games, Florida head coach Dan Mullen felt he could already see a change in Tennessee under Heupel.

“That was a different-looking team than I saw last year, to be honest with you,” Mullen says. “How they played, the intensity, the toughness, the physicalness they played with, you know, I give them some credit. I think they’re a much-improved football team.”

The Vols entered the week of preparation for Missouri unsure about their starting quarterback. Hendon Hooker left the loss to Florida in the fourth quarter after taking a hit and did not return.

Joe Milton III finished the game, but was rehabilitating from his own injury and was not at 100%, Heupel says.

“There were multiple guys that had injuries or got nicked up during the course of the ballgame the other night,” Heupel said earlier this week. “Don’t know where those guys are at. Hendon at quarterback, not sure if he’ll be available or not, so we’ll see how that transpires here during the course of the week and go from there.”

Given the number of players who transferred in the offseason during the transition in coaching staffs, Tennessee can’t afford to have injuries become a major issue.

“I said at the beginning of the year, we’re probably as thin as anybody in the country based off of pure numbers, guys on scholarship,” Heupel says.

“Depth for us certainly is something we’re thinking about and trying to continue to develop. Young guys have got to continue to grow and be ready to play when given the opportunity, and play at a really high level.”

Redshirt junior tight end Jacob Warren say the Vols returned to practice this week with a unified approach to improvement.

“We are all together – offense, defense, special teams. Everybody believes in each other,” Warren says. “We all know that a lot of the issues we are having are self-inflicted and we can change them, so it’s just a matter of rallying around each other and getting better.”

Any time a program brings in a new coaching staff, a culture change is often touted. Tennessee has cycled through a few iterations over the last decade.

The remainder of the SEC schedule presents a chance for the Vols to showcase how much progress can be made.

“I definitely think we’re playing with a lot more effort than we did last year,” sophomore defensive end Tyler Baron says.

“Another thing, we’re not dwelling on mistakes as much, even though we did make a ton of them (against Florida). I felt like we were able to snap it clear and move on to the next play well.”