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If you asked certain Tennessee fans how they felt coming off the loss at Alabama, I’d imagine most them have been pleased with the effort they’ve seen from this team. It’s not lost on anyone around the football program that the current team lacks competitive depth at certain positions. It’s definitely not a secret around the conference. But the one thing we are seeing out of the Vols football team is the ability to play with what they’ve got.
Honestly, with how thin the linebacker group is, most would’ve predicted the Vols would be dead last in tackles for loss and that the make-shift offensive line would have gotten destroyed. But that hasn’t been the case this season, for the most part. Yes, we saw how things went in Tuscaloosa, as this group seemed to run out of gas in the fourth quarter, but don’t forget about the previous three quarters. I’ve noticed an overall trend of intensity out of a group that shouldn’t be playing some of these teams this close, especially with how they are struggling with injuries. But this team continues to build a proof of concept, which head coach Josh Heupel is trying to sell for the future.
“You’re selling what you’ve done at previous places, and you’re selling why you know it’s going to happen here at UT. That’s offense, defense, and special teams. It’s the relationship and the energy and the program that you’re building. Now that they get an opportunity to see the product on the football field, they know that those things reign true. The ability to play extremely aggressive on all three phases of the game.
“Our defense leading the country in tackles for loss,” Heupel added. “Offensively, the tempo, aggressiveness, and balance that we’re going to have in the run and the pass game. The product is starting to sell itself, and I say that meaning that (prospects) understand what they’re going to be playing, and there is a ton of excitement for recruits. It’s a completely different feel when you have something that you’re able to show them, that they can see. It’s tangible to them, versus trying to sell them something that’s from another school as far as the product of what you’re putting on the field.”
If you want to see a clear example of what Heupel will be selling recruits or transfers this off-season, look no further than Hendon Hooker, who was thrown into the spotlight earlier this season and has been the starting quarterback ever since. These are the types of examples Heupel will need as he tries to rebuild the program, though he’ll still have to rely on transfers to bring him immediate depth. But buying into the culture really set Hooker apart, which the Vols will most likely need more of.
“I think for Hendon, he’s a great example of a guy that comes in, buys into a culture, has some maturity, has grown into a really good football leader inside of our locker room,” Heupel added. “But his consistency and his habits every single day. And then what we are doing offensively, being able to put him in a position, is why he’s playing at a much higher level than he previously had. I think it speaks to Hendon, and I think it speaks to what we are able to do offensively to put the quarterback in a good position to be successful.”
As we enter the month of November, the Vols have a chance to capitalize on the remaining schedule, which could help on the recruiting trail as well. Tennessee will play Kentucky this week, followed by Georgia, South Alabama and Vanderbilt. This schedule is setting the Vols up to finish the regular season with seven wins, which would exceed expectations that most presented before the season.
The Vols will have an opportunity to beat a Kentucky team that is struggling on offense and with a defensive unit that was gassed by the fourth quarter in the loss to Mississippi State. If this team can roll into Lexington healthy, then things will get interesting on Saturday night. This one is pretty much a toss-up game at the moment, so maybe Josh Heupel’s squad can come up with a progressive game plan on offense to take advantage of their fast pace. We all know what to expect with Georgia, but the remaining two games could catapult the Vols into a nice position heading into December.
Being able to show recruits the progression of this team is key, as the Vols look to land a few more commitments to this class. But, it’s all about finishing strong, and this team is staring down the barrel at doing just that. The one thing this team has going for them at the moment is tempered excitement around the program, which you can’t say for several other teams in the SEC.
So, as we turn the page towards the final four games of the season, Tennessee is sitting in a great spot to finish 3-1 in November, which will only continue building momentum from a player and fan standpoint.
We all know the Vols need to continue taking the right steps towards the future of the program. This month presents that opportunity.