By Mark Nagi

When the 2021 football season got underway for the Tennessee Volunteers, expectations were extremely low.

Jeremy Pruitt had been fired as head coach, and athletics director Phillip Fulmer was forced to retire. An NCAA investigation into recruiting violations under Pruitt’s watch was underway.

The program saw nearly 30 defections as Tennessee players jumped into the transfer portal. That meant that their best overall player was gone (linebacker Henry To’o To’o to Alabama), as was their best running back (Eric Gray to Oklahoma), their second best running back (Ty Chandler to North Carolina), their top recruit from the Class of 2020 (safety Key Lawrence to Oklahoma) and perhaps their best offensive lineman (Wanya Morris to Oklahoma).

New head coach Josh Heupel certainly had his work cut out for him.

So far, he’s passed the test with flying colors.  I’m writing this article right before the Vanderbilt game, and I would be shocked if the Vols lost, so for these purposes I’ve got the Vols at 7-5 and heading to a bowl game.

“I think outside expectations, outside noise, is something that myself and our staff has tried to not pay attention to,” said Heupel. “I think the players have bought into that as well. From the moment I got here, I never placed a ceiling on what our football team could do. You’ve heard me say it, that we’re in a race against ourselves. I’m so proud of the growth from the first day that I got here to who we are now. Certainly, we want some things to be better at the same time too… but the growth of individuals and collectively as a team is really special. I think we’ve laid a great foundation to what we’re going to be in the future.”

Heupel was assisted by a group of experienced players that decided to stick it out.  Wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. has been a playmaker and become one of the best kick and punt returners in the nation. Defensive backs Theo Jackson and Alontae Taylor are team leaders. Grad transfer quarterback Hendon Hooker has been one of the breakout stars in the Southeastern Conference.  And don’t discount the work of Cade Mays and Matthew Butler on the offensive and defensive lines respectively.

Those seniors will be remembered for a long time at Tennessee.

“Facing adversity and running right into it,” said Heupel. “Never losing faith and just continuing to compete and grow. I think all the uncertainty of last offseason, December and January, to a new coaching staff arriving, them buying into it… A lot of them being great leaders inside of our program have been instrumental in how we have grown. To me, when I think about this group, it’s their ability to face adversity and step right through the fire.”

He added, “I think a lot of coaches will tell you when they go into a new program, the older guys are the toughest guys to get to buy into it because they feel like they’re on the back end of their careers. To me, that hasn’t been the case at all inside of our program. I think we’ve had great buy-in from everyone throughout the course of the process.”

Process is a key word here because Rome wasn’t built in a day. Heupel and his coaching staff are laying the groundwork for the future. The young players on this roster will be key to the Vols future success.

“I think they understood our expectations, but then started to grow and feel comfortable, and knew that they were going to have an opportunity to learn and grow inside of the game, and do it in a really positive way,” said Heupel. “I think throughout the course of the summer, there was buy-in just in the way that we were preparing them was different. They felt like they were getting stronger and being in great shape to go compete… I think just continuing to create energy and

a buy-in from them, that there’s a 365 day out of the year plan to help them grow and be what they have dreamed and want to be. They all have high goals, and I think they believe in the process that we’ve put before them.”