Josh Heupel Changed The Culture At Tennessee: Is It Enough To Overcome Division Rivals?

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This time last season, Tennessee was coming off a loss to Pittsburgh and Josh Heupel was trying to figure out the identity of his football team. Fast forward a year and the Vols are starting to put all the pieces together.

Winning last week at Pittsburgh could be the catalyst to 2022 success.

No longer does UT need to worry about breaking in a new quarterback, which was the case last year. The baton was passed to Hendon Hooker during the 2021 Pittsburgh game in Knoxville after Joe Milton was injured.

Hooker has thrived as the starter. While Tennessee prepares for Akron on Saturday, the progression of the program will be tested when it faces its first SEC opponent of the season: Florida in Knoxville on Sept. 24.

Let’s look back before we look forward. Grinding out the win against the Panthers last weekend was pivotal for the success of Tennessee in 2022, which I’ve been preaching for eight months.

Now that the Pitt game is in the rear-view mirror, Josh Heupel can see the difference a year makes.

“We weren’t ready in the beginning of last year either,” Heupel said. “I thought we grew throughout the course of the season. We’re different now than we were at the end of last year, too. It’s the accountability that we have inside of our program, doing the right things – and that’s in every area of your life (because) it shows up in how you play – the mental toughness, physical toughness and the ability to strain when things aren’t going your way, being relentless and playing together in all phases of the game.”

Hendon Hooker Has Helped Lead Team’s Growth

Starting with quarterback Hendon Hooker, Tennessee has a group of players it can rely on for leadership and to know what the coaching staff expects. It also centers around players buying into what this coaching staff is preaching on a daily basis in practice and around the building.

There were a number of speed bumps last season as Heupel was looking for growth out of a team he was still learning about, all while establishing a culture of accountability.

We also can’t forget that the coaching staff last season was also trying to navigate the NCAA investigation and punishing themselves in regards to recruiting, all while also focusing on the current roster.

Holding off on official visits, for instance, limited what the recruiting staff did with prospects.

But now that is in the past, the coaching staff can spend more time on the daily activities inside the football building.

Talking with a few folks around the program, the feeling is that a weight has been lifted off their shoulders. So it’s a different stage of Tennessee football, with the attention now focused on building the program by getting wins on the field.

According to one Power 5 head coach who has coached against a Josh Heupel-led team in the past, he’s noticed a change in the attitude on the field, dating back to late last season.

“You can tell his attitude has rubbed off on the players,” the Power-5 coach said. “It looks as though they’ve bought into his overall game plan for the program. Just look at that Pitt game and the way his defense is playing for [defensive coordinator Tim Banks]. He’s getting the most out of his players right now, but they’ve got a tough schedule coming up. We’ll see, but you can notice a change even from late 2021.”

Josh Heupel
Tennessee Volunteers head coach Josh Heupel. (Getty Images)

One Game At A Time Approach For Vols

So the attention turns toward Akron this week, then the showdown with Florida on Sept. 24. But Josh Heupel needs his players to buy into what they’re doing on a daily basis, and not overlook the game in front of them.

“We talked about that in the team meeting today,” Heupel said. “College football has always been this way, but certainly this past weekend and the first weekend, you see it, right? Like everybody’s got 85 (scholarships) and they’ve got good coaching staffs, so you better prepare and be ready to compete in a really good way. Your competitiveness cannot deviate from week to week.”

Tennessee WR Jalin Hyatt against Pittsburgh. (Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics)

Simply put, we’ve seen a number of teams fall victim to lesser opponents over the last two weeks, which I don’t expect in any way from Tennessee this weekend.

What this football team has to do over the next 10 days is stay healthy and continue building cohesiveness inside the building.

It starts with building relationships with his players, while not giving up on them, even if they’re going through difficult times on the field.

This is a reason why players like wide receiver Jalin Hyatt grind so hard for Josh Heupel, which stems from the head coach pushing them to be better, but also understanding the circumstances.

“He believes in us,” Hyatt said. “When you have a head coach that believes in you, believes in what you can do, it makes your game go to a whole ‘nother level. When I was going through my struggles last year he believed in me. That’s why I go so hard. That’s why this team goes so hard, because he believes in us.”

Cedric Tillman
Tennessee Vols’ Cedric Tillman (4)  (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

New Phase For Tennessee Football

But we’re now entering a different phase of the rebuild at Tennessee. Getting past Akron this weekend without any hiccups will set up one of the biggest games in Knoxville in recent memory.

Not only because of what Heupel is trying to accomplish, but also because it feels like a year that the Vols can actually knock off the Gators. Trust me, I’ll believe it when I see it, but they have the team to do it.

It goes back to what the Tennessee football program is trying to accomplish as a whole, and finishing the month of September 4-0 would go a long ways towards future success.

It’s always one game at a time, but if Tennessee wants to become a team that’s talked about on a weekly basis and prove they belong, the next 10 days are pivotal for the program.

Written by Trey Wallace

Trey Wallace is the host of The Trey Wallace Podcast that focuses on a mixture of sports, culture, entertainment along with his perspective on everything from College Football to the College World Series.

Wallace has been covering college sports for 15 years, starting off while attending the University of South Alabama. He’s broken some of the biggest college stories including the Florida football “Credit Card Scandal” along with the firing of Jim McElwin and Kevin Sumlin. Wallace also broke one of the biggest stories in college football in 2020 around the NCAA investigation into recruiting violations against Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt.

Wallace also appears on radio across seven different states breaking down that latest news in college sports.

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