Spring Practice Underway for Vols

By Mark Nagi

The 2022 season is one that will be remembered by Tennessee Vols fans for decades to come.  They won 11 games, including the Orange Bowl over Clemson. The Vols beat Florida, LSU, and snapped a 15-year losing streak to Alabama.

But that’s all in the past, and the 2023 Tennessee Vols are starting to build their own legacy. Last week spring practice got underway, and one of the main takeaways is just how much things have changed for this program since Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel arrived in January 2021.

“I think for you guys, you walk out there, and you can see the difference in depth, really at every position,” said Heupel. “The new guys, the young guys that we’ve added. Length, athleticism, size on the offensive and defensive lines. Much deeper than we’ve been. Skill spots, same thing. For us, this spring we’re truly going to be able to get reps for an entire roster of guys. Year One, we were a shell of not just numbers, but athletes on the grass that we are today. That allows you to increase the number of reps that you’re going get during the spring and it also creates a ton of competition and urgency, from the meeting rooms, to what you’re doing on the practice field.”

Tennessee was blessed to have Hendon Hooker under center for most of the past two seasons. He willed the Vols to some of their greatest moments. But he’s getting ready for the NFL Draft. The good news for Tennessee is that they have another experienced signal caller that know Heupel’s system well ready to go, Joe Milton. Heupel believes that whether working as the backup or the starter, Milton is prepared for the challenges ahead.

“I said this last year, you could feel his energy and focus, and he was very intentional in the way that he worked,” said Heupel. “He had a voice inside our team. When he got his opportunity to start on the back end of the season, I spoke to those things before the Vanderbilt game and the Orange Bowl. The same is true today. You hear his voice more often because certain guys aren’t here that were in some of those leadership roles, but that’s true for a lot of guys on our roster. I’ve been really proud of the way that Joe has worked here. He’s hyper-competitive and intentional in trying to become the best that he can be at his craft and at the same time, push and pull his teammates to compete at a championship level every day.”

Heupel’s fast paced system turned Tennessee into the highest scoring offense in the nation. But it’s not always easy for the defense, which must adjust to being on the field a great deal longer than most units.

In 2022 they had some struggles, but a solid performance against Clemson in the Orange Bowl is a sign that this group might be ready to improve in the Fall.

“We took a big step,” said Heupel of his defense. “Some of that was just regaining the personnel that you need to go compete, and then (going through) another year in the system. Fundamentally being better, and then tackling in space. We made a huge jump in the run game on defense. Obviously, we need to take another step in our pass defense and third down defense. That doesn’t just strictly correlate to the secondary. It’s your second level defenders, it’s your front-line guys maybe dropping into zones off of your pressures. At the same time, it’s also getting to the quarterback with a four-man rush. All of those pieces have to come together to help us take another step. I believe in who we have, both from coaches and personnel, that we’ll be ready to take another step as long as we work and compete at a championship level.”

Tennessee will finish spring practice with the annual Orange & White Game on Saturday, April 15 at Neyland Stadium.