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It certainly wasn’t hard to notice the difference between certain position groups on Saturday night, as Tennessee tried to keep up with Georgia on the field. It’s certainly not Josh Heupel’s fault that the Vols are in this situation, but it is his job to get Tennessee out of it. When it comes to the playmakers on the field, Georgia was clearly the more talented team. So when you look at the how far Tennessee must go to shorten the gap, look no further than recruiting and building a culture.
I think it’s fair to say that Heupel has changed the culture at Tennessee within the 10 months he’s been on campus. Is it perfect? No, but at least he’s getting the most out of his players and earning their trust. Most of us realize how hard it is to come into a new situation and try to flip it overnight, and this staff has done a good job of getting players to buy into what they are selling, which could go a long way in building this program to its potential.
Take a guy like Cedric Tillman, who has come out of his shell this season and turned into a weapon for the Vols offense. This didn’t happen overnight. He pushed through last season, knowing he could get better at his position, especially if he bought into how the new coaches were looking to develop him. Now he’s doing fantastic things on the field, like having 200 yards receiving against No.1 Georgia this past weekend. These are the types of players Heupel is looking to build his program around, especially when Heupel says they are setting standards around the program.
“It’s everything. It’s setting standards inside your program, then meeting it. It’s got to be player-driven from within the locker room too, and that happens by position sometimes and sometimes just great leaders on any side of the football. You want to continue to recruit guys that have that type of mentality, but you’ve got to develop it inside of your program too. You push forward every single day and everybody gains those inches. That adds up to the differences that you need to make.”
But this rebuild will also be on the backs of the veterans in the program. Tennessee won’t get by with just the younger players coming in and trying to spruce up the program. They need veterans to lead these younger players down the right path, on and off the field. It’s all about how this football team can grow, and having veterans like Matthew Butler, Cade Mays, Velus Jones Jr. and Cedric Tillman can go a long ways in building the future.
The team must continue to grow, even during adversity, which Josh Heupel mentioned on Monday during his press conference.
“Yeah, I think it’s important that your players understand growth. I think it’s important that your coaches talk to young guys that come in and maybe are on a practice squad and not experiencing a ton of playing time early in their career. You have the players that are older, too, try to help carry that message to young guys. Sometimes it happens super early for guys that step into your program. Sometimes it doesn’t. There’s going to be adversity in this game. It’s going to happen during the course of your career at some point and some time.”
But Heupel knows that this is a race to get to the next level, especially with teams like Alabama and Georgia. He gets it and knows his program can’t lose sight of the competition ahead, especially in today’s college football. This is the toughest conference in the country, so it’s not like the competition is going anywhere, even if some teams have down years. So making up ground quickly should be the focus of every team not currently battling for a Playoff spot.
This is the reason why Heupel has been so upfront about what Tennessee needs to compete with those teams in the future, whether that is on the recruiting trail or the new renovations for the football buildings. But this is the reason Heupel took the job, so he can get in the fight with his players and also work on building Tennessee back into a national name without having to tell recruits about success from 20 years ago. Heupel summed it up best on Monday, as he talked about making up ground between programs like Georgia and Alabama.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s why you want to be here. You want a chance to have the ability to compete against the best and then go beat them. Certainly that’s the bar in this conference, and for us, with our schedule. It’s a challenge that our kids wake up to and I do every day. We go compete and keep pushing forward, and we’re in a race to get there as fast as we possibly can, but we will.”
This Tennessee program has already made folks around the country take notice of them and what they’ve accomplished so far, but now it’s time to take the next step in the process. They must finish the season strong so they can take advantage of the opportunities in recruiting and get folks to buy into the long term plan.
It’s not going to happen overnight, but as Dr. Leo Marvin said to Bob Wiley in the classic movie What About Bob?:
“Baby steps, Bob, baby steps.”