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Front Page - Friday, September 1, 2023

Vols look to improve on 11-win season

Senior quarterback Joe Milton III, who led the Vols to a 31-14 win against Clemson in last season’s Orange Bowl, transferred to Tennessee from Michigan following the 2020 season. - Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com

The University of Tennessee football team begins the 2023 season with something the Vols haven’t dealt with for a while – outside expectations.

Coming off an 11-win season and an Orange Bowl win, the Vols are trending upward on their attempted rise back into national prominence.

Tennessee is ranked No. 12 in The Associated Press preseason poll, the highest ranking to open a season since being No. 9 in 2016. The Vols were picked fourth in the SEC preseason poll behind defending national champion Georgia, Alabama and LSU.

Tennessee opens the season against Virginia on Sept. 2 at Nissan Stadium in Nashville (noon, ABC).

Despite the success and media attention the program received last season, UT players say they aren’t satisfied with what they accomplished.

“A lot of people outside the program wouldn’t have expected us to have won 11 games last year, go to a New Year’s Six bowl, win the Orange Bowl. Maybe not nobody, but a lot of people weren’t expecting that, right?” says senior tight end Jacob Warren.

“A lot of people from the outside would say, ‘That’s a good job, you probably reached all your goals, did everything you were looking out to do.’ It’s not the case.”

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel is entering his third season leading the Vols. It will be his first without an NCAA investigation hanging over the program from the previous regime’s transgressions. The penalties, which did not include a postseason ban, were doled out in the summer.

Heupel quickly stabilized the Vols following his arrival on Rocky Top. After going 7-6 in his first season – a four-win improvement from the season prior – Heupel followed it with a run that reinvigorated the fan base and put the program back in the national spotlight.

Victories against Alabama, Florida and LSU last season were seen as stepping stones.

“The standard at Tennessee is to win championships. It’s pretty clear,” Heupel says. “I think we are Top 10 in the history of college football in wins, first-round draft picks, bowls, bowl wins. The standard is to compete at the highest level and win championships. For us, that starts in the (SEC) Eastern Division, which everybody knows that there’s a lot of good football that’s played in that division.”

Offense runs through Milton

Tennessee’s success this season could hinge on the performance of quarterback Joe Milton III and improvements in the secondary.

The Vols are hoping their fast-paced offense doesn’t skip a beat with Milton at the helm. The Vols surpassed 4,000 yards passing in a season for the first time in school history last season.

Milton is replacing Hendon Hooker, who had a Heisman-caliber season until tearing his ACL against South Carolina last season. A sixth-year senior, Milton is known for his strong arm, and hopes to put any questions about his accuracy to bed this season.

Milton has thrown for 1,346 yards and 12 touchdowns with no interceptions in his two seasons at UT after transferring from Michigan. After losing his starting job to Hooker, Milton replaced Hooker last season and led the Vols to win over Vanderbilt and Clemson.

“I’m extremely, extremely confident,” Milton says. “I trust the guys around me. I trust my coaches to go through the preparation with me confidently. I’m extremely confident and I’m ready for it.”

Milton will have plenty of weapons to utilize. Although the Vols lost wide receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman to the NFL, they brought back Bru McCoy, Ramel Keyton and Squirrel White and added speedy Oregon transfer Dont’e Thornton Jr.

Returning running backs Jaylen Wright, Jabari Small and Dylan Sampson combined for more than 2,000 yards in the backfield.

The offensive line has veterans in Cooper Mays, Javontez Spraggins and University of Miami transfer John Campbell Jr.

Tennessee will have a new offensive coordinator in place following the promotion of Joey Halzle to replace Alex Golesh, who left to become the head coach at the University of South Florida.

Heupel and Halzle have a strong relationship that extends back many years to when Halzle played at Oklahoma and Heupel was coaching for his alma mater.

Depth defensive key

Defensively, Tennessee must replace top pass rusher Byron Young. The Vols added BYU linebacker Keenan Pili, BYU cornerback Gabe Jeudy-Lally and Arizona State defensive tackle Omarr Norman-Lott.

Given the tempo of UT’s offense, it’s impractical to ask the defense to hold opponents scoreless or not give up some yards. But the Vols’ secondary has been an issue.

UT’s pass defense ranked No. 127 nationally last season, allowing an SEC-worst 151 passing plays over 10 yards.

UT defensive coordinator Tim Banks believes depth is the biggest strength of the defense this season. Between the returning starters and newcomers, he likes the options the Vols have to put on the field at different times.

“We feel really good that we should be able to rotate a lot of guys and give a lot of guys opportunities that they’ve earned through camp,” Banks says. “It’s exciting to be quite honest with you. It’s exciting to know that you can roll different guys out there and try to keep those guys as fresh as we can.”

Senior defensive lineman Omari Thomas realizes the defense remains a point of concern to some, but says the Vols don’t need that as motivation.

“No, we don’t take it as a chip ’cause we feel like our offense is the best in the country. Us getting a chance to go against it every day, for people to kind of talk against us, we just let it be,” he says. “We don’t really feed too much on what people say on the outside noise. We come in everyday ready to work. We understand that just opens up a whole ’nother level of us being able to play and show who we are.”

Rapid rebound

Given the state of the program just a few years ago, few could have expected Tennessee to rebuild this quickly. But Heupel’s arrival triggered a turnaround nearly as rapid as his offensive style.

“I think when you love that guy next to you, you love the people that are leading you, we love Coach Heup, all of our position coordinators, you’ll go the extra mile to make sure you’ll go out and execute your assignment, right?” Warren says. “I think it kind of starts with that. That’s how we’ve had so much success. He came in, changed the culture. He made it known that we are loved, expected, valued, and we are really good football players at the same time.”

Milton surprised his teammates last week by giving them each a new pair of Beats by Dre Studio Pro headphones. The gift was made possible through Milton’s NIL deal with Beats.

The Vols hope it’s the first of many national opportunities they receive again this season. Despite some changes to the lineup, they aren’t afraid to keep their goals high.

They don’t want 11 wins and a New Year’s Six bowl game to be the ceiling for the program. They want to consistently be contending for titles.

“We’re not being complacent. We understand that everything just has to fall the way we want it to fall. We just know we have to continue to grow,” Thomas says. “We had a good year last year, but we have to turn that page. We can’t keep living in the past. We understand what happened last year, but we’re looking to do big things this year.”