KNOXVILLE - Entering the second year of the Josh Heupel era at Tennessee, the team finally hits the practice field, looking to continue moving the program in the right direction. This time last year, the Vols program was working under an NCAA cloud, while also trying to reestablish itself in the SEC with a brand new staff. Now, the staff will head into this season with a better outlook on what's expected both on the field and off.
If you think back to how this program was searching for the right quarterback during 2021 fall camp, there's no doubt who will lead this team into the 2022 season. Though he might not have won the job in preseason camp, Hendon Hooker established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the conference after a successful 2021, throwing for 2,945 yards, 31 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions. So, not having to worry about who will take the opening snaps will go a long way for this offense, especially with wide receiver Cedric Tillman on the outside. There's no denying that last year's team entered the season with more established weapons on offense, but that doesn't mean the 2022 roster doesn't have a few hidden gems to help with this up-tempo system.
One of those weapons that Hendon Hooker could use on offense is USC transfer Bru McCoy, who's still waiting to be cleared. Heupel noted that they 'feel good' about his status for the season, but as we all know, the NCAA loves to take its time in these situations. But, having another threat on the outside with Tillman will make this offense difficult to contain. Throw in guys like Jalin Hyatt, Squirrel White and Jimmy Calloway, Vols offensive coordinator Alex Golesh has enough playmakers to make the opposing team uncomfortable.
But the word 'belief' is not how Heupel wants his team to approach this season.
"I think instead of using the word belief, expect is something we have talked about. There is a big difference between teams that believe and teams that expect. We have to continue to work in a way that we expect until we get to the fall. There is great trust and understanding. A year ago at this time, none of our players and a good portion of our staff never been through a training camp together..
"There is great trust and belief in what we are doing. There are clear lines of communication," Heupel added. "They understand the standards and expectations. They are able to just go out and compete. We have had a couple of meetings already. The energy and focus was so different than it was a year ago, and it should be that way."
This season will present a bunch of different challenges for this roster, but having a majority of the guys know what to expect from the coaching staff cannot be undervalued. This time last season, it was new, even though the Vols had gone through a spring practice.
Also, this team is healthy, which wasn't the case at a number of positions last season. Whether that be on the offensive line or in the defensive secondary, having the depth, or at least bodies, is key to how the Vols will attack on both sides of the ball.
Getting Byron Young and Tyler Baron the help thy need along the defensive line is a point of emphasis for coach Rodney Garner. Yes, there might be a lot more bodies, but how many of those players take the next step, is key.
Last season at linebacker players like Jeremy Banks and Aaron Beasley tried to lead the group without help behind them. Now, Juwan Mitchell is healthy and could make a run at starting, freeing up Tim Banks to get creative on defense. Can Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCollough be the leaders in the secondary, along with Christian Charles?
Offensive coordinator Alex Golesh made it clear that Darnell Wright would be playing right tackle, presenting a battle for the left tackle position.
Whether it be Florida transfer Gerald Mincey, Dayne Davis or Jeremiah Crawford, this staff must find the right guy to protect Hendon Hooker's blindside. But at least they have options, compared to where they were one year ago.
The Vols could use help at running back, with Heupel confirming that Len'Neth Whitehead was done for the season with an injury.
This leaves Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright, along with freshmen Justin Williams-Thomas and Dylan Sampson. Having four scholarship running backs isn't a spot Heupel wants to be in come opening day.
They've brought in Lyn-J Dixon for a visit, who transferred to West Virginia in the offseason after playing four years at Clemson. After going through spring practice with Neal Brown and the Moutaineers, Dixon is looking for playing time, which could potentially lead him into the Vols backfield if the visit goes well.
This team won't catch anyone off-guard with its style of play, but having the right group of guys running this offense will be the key to success. Can Hooker take the next step and build off last season? How does Joe Milton continue to grow at the backup QB spot?
Josh Heupel thinks both quarterbacks working together and having such a strong bond will only benefit the team.
"Joe (Milton III) is in a much better position than he was a year ago than when he started the season. Hendon and Joe both talked about how close those guys are. They compete in a really positive way together, but they support each other too. For us and our program, it certainly is a luxury to have a guy that has a lot of time on task in game situations, has command of what we are doing. A year ago, I thought he made great improvements in some subtle things from the end of the regular season to the bowl game."
This could be a successful season for Tennessee, certainly if it stays healthy and can get the most out of this offense. But one thing is for certain with this squad and it all centers around the expectations to not take a step backward.
We'll start to get a glimpse of what the 2022 Vols will look like over the next few weeks, but the term 'fast' will be used a lot, again.