KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Storylines will be aplenty as Tennessee welcome South Carolina to Neyland Stadium for its SEC home opener at noon ET Saturday. Volunteers head coach Josh Heupel said in his Thursday media availability that his team’s confidence continues to grow following a 62-24 victory at Missouri last weekend.
“Guys have been really good in our preparation,” he said. “I know I talked to you guys earlier in the week, but the week has unfolded really well. I like what our guys are doing. As we continue to evolve here, the next 48 hours will be important for us, but I like where we’re at.”
Festivities Saturday include the return of UT legend Al Wilson, who will be honored at halftime as an electee for the 2021 College Football Hall of Fame. Wilson will join Heupel and the team for the Vol Walk, which begins at 9:45 a.m.
“We are honored to have him lead our Vol Walk here on Saturday afternoon,” Heupel said. “(It’s) a great opportunity for our fans to really just emphasize what he means to Vol Nation and what he’s done. He’s a guy that to me embodies everything that it means to be a Volunteer. A guy that cares about his teammates, still to this day, more than he cares about himself. A guy that plays the right way and has always done that.”
In addition, the Volunteers will wear their Nike “Dark Mode” black alternate uniforms. Heupel unveiled them to the team following Wednesday’s practice.
“To me, the player experience is at the forefront of everything that we do,” Heupel said. “Uniforms are something that is important to them, in some ways it’s important in the recruiting world as well. It’s something that we started to talk with the administration about and worked on some designs.”
Tickets for Saturday’s game are on sale now at AllVols.com.
Head Coach Josh Heupel
Oct. 7, 2021
“Good Thursday for us. Guys have been really good in our preparation. I know I talked to you guys earlier in the week, but the week has unfolded really well. I like what our guys are doing. As we continue to evolve here, the next 48 hours will be important for us, but I like where we’re at. Great opportunity this week. We’ve got a really good opponent coming in. First and foremost, we’ve got to go play our best. Obviously, offensively and special teams have to take care of the football. They’ve done a great job of changing the way the game’s played in those two phases. Defensively, we’ve got to do a great job of getting (South Carolina) into 3rd-and-long, and then getting off the football field too.
“Great opportunity this weekend to celebrate one of the greats that’s ever played here too, Al Wilson. We are honored to have him lead our Vol Walk here on Saturday afternoon. Great opportunity for our fans to really just emphasize what he means to Vol Nation and what he’s done. He’s a guy that to me embodies everything that it means to be a Volunteer. A guy that cares about his teammates, still to this day, more than he cares about himself. A guy that plays the right way and has always done that. Honored to have him here and looking forward to having him spend some time with our football team over the course of the weekend, too.”
On what he looks for in the week’s preparation coming off a win…
“Just the energy that they practice with. When we go good-on-good, what’s the tempo of it? What’s the strain? When we go into scout periods, what’s the attention to detail? What’s the effort that we’re getting? Not just from the guys that are playing on Saturday, but from the other guys too. It’s our entire program practicing the right way. We’re starting to develop good habits. Not where we need to be. You’ve guys have heard me say this. The last 48 hours are going to be critical in this one too, and we continue to grow in that way.”
On if the team is turning the corner with the little things…
“I think we’re going to find out Saturday afternoon at 12:00. You’re only as good as your next one. I do think there’s attention to the detail of (the little things). Those are things that we’ve been emphasizing as a coaching staff since we got here. There’s a growth to it. You’ve heard me say, we’re kind of in a race against ourselves to be as good as we can. They’ve taken more ownership. There’s some ownership from the leadership in the locker room. We talked about that a week and a half ago, but I think our guys are starting to grow that way too. You don’t ever take those things for granted, but the only thing that matters is this Saturday at 12:00.”
On what impresses him about South Carolina’s offense and defense…
“Defensively, turnovers. Interceptions, fumbles, they rip at it every time that they get an opportunity. You can’t just sit back in the pocket. They have the ability to change the game with the way they rush the quarterback. Offensively, their ability to maintain some balance, the athleticism of their quarterback at times to get outside of the pocket and make plays too. That’s something that has hurt us in the past. We have to do a great job of pushing the pocket, but then having rush integrity in our lanes too and making sure we bottle them up.”
On if morning practices have helped in preparing for noon kickoff games…
“I’ve practiced later in the afternoon and started fast with early games, and vice versa too, in a not positive way. I think it comes down to your competitive spirit, how your approach has been in the hours and days that lead up into it. Then just the ability to go out and perform at the right level.”
On when he learned about the alternate uniform concept …
“First meeting that I had with the football team the day I got introduced, I told you we spent an hour and fifteen or an hour and 30 minutes in there talking about a lot of things that matter, some things that (the players) felt like were important. Jerseys were at the end of that conversation. To me, the player experience is at the forefront of everything that we do. There’s non-negotiables from myself and our coaching staff in how you have to attack every day, whether that’s in the weight room, whether that’s class, whether that’s on the football field. But then, there are some things that you want to give them ownership in and make the player experience as good as it can be, on and off the field. Uniforms are something that is important to them, in some ways it’s important in the recruiting world as well. So, for us, that was something that maybe a month and a half, two months onto the job … The first month and a half, you’re just trying to get your feet on the ground and get everybody here and get going. But after that, it’s something that we started to talk with the administration about and worked on some designs. Obviously just with the pandemic and everything that’s going on, supply chains and those types of things kind of limited our options as late in the process as we were, and so that’s how we decided to go with the black and orange in this first rendition.”
On if the chemistry with the coaching staff has improved since first arriving…
“You’re always building trust. You’re always building lines of communication. There’s a ripple effect as a head coach in every interaction you have with everybody inside your building every day. That’s true with your staff. That’s true with strength and conditioning. That’s true with your academics. That’s true with the people that are cleaning up after you. So just being mindful of that, I think we do have great trust. Some of that is with the ability to bring people with me that I’ve had previous years with at the previous stop. Whether I knew guys that were coming in for the first time, they know who I am and what I’m about. Some of the hires that hadn’t been with me previously or hadn’t known, that have connections with other people on this staff made it easier to get started in the right direction. I do think there is a clear vision of who and what we want to be. I know we have coaching staff members that are about the exact same thing and so when you have a vision that is very similar, you’re able to grow extremely quickly. A part of that is just our wives’ community too. My wife and the other wives on the staff have started to form that community too that impacts who we are as a program. Our players see and feel those things too.”
On mixing up jersey combinations throughout the season…
“You’ve seen me at these press conferences. Me picking out every design of a uniform is probably not the right way for this program to go, you know what I mean? I do think we’ll have an alternate uniform that will appear periodically throughout the season. We have an unbelievable, the best college football uniform. The orange and white, classic look, there’s nothing better. The helmet, to the pants, to the jersey, to the combinations put together, our players love that uniform, right? But you’re also able to put a new twist on things too and change things up so, yes, we will have different combinations that show up during the course of the season. Uniform combinations that show up on game day, our leadership council on Sundays—they come in and have medical treatment—those guys are part of picking out what we wear for the following game.”