To say that this Tennessee football team has been through adversity over the last few years would be an understatement. From coaching changes to teammates leaving, through injuries and many setbacks, this group of players have been through the wringer, but have come out the other side with an attitude that shows folks how much they care about finishing their time with the program the right way. This was the focal point of Josh Heupel’s meeting with the media this week.
There aren’t many seniors in college football who can say they’ve been through as many coaches as have walked through the doors at Tennessee over the last number of years. But this group of Vols made the choice to continue battling with the new head coach they inherited. We all know the number of players who left this program after Jeremy Pruitt was fired. It was a lot. But the ones who stayed bought into what Josh Heupel and his staff were preaching, and some of them did so fairly quickly.
Ja’Quain Blakely is one of those guys who has seen numerous coaches and support staff funnel through the doors at the Anderson Training Facility over the past five years. But it didn’t take him very long to buy into the Heupel process.
“It didn’t take me too long. Just coming in and knowing a little bit of their background and doing some research. It didn’t take me long to know that these guys know what they say, say what they mean. And they come here for one thing—to win games.”
Take a player like Velus Jones Jr., who transferred to Tennessee from USC under the former coaching staff. He had already graduated as a Trojan, but wanted the opportunity to play in the South, closer to home. So when it didn’t work out for him to transfer the first time, he played another year for the Trojans before finally getting the opportunity to play in Knoxville last season. Jones saw these last few years as a journey of faith that was already written for him.
“I am a firm believer that your life has already been written, and so I’m just living it day by day. It’s been a journey. It’s been something really beautiful, something really special that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
If you are a fan of Tennessee or have watched this team from afar, you know that adversity is word that comes up very often, especially for these seniors, who will play their last game inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon against Vanderbilt. If it weren’t for players like Matthew Butler or Blakely, this season could’ve gone a completely different way than it has.
Matthew Butler was part of the 2017 class, but he is quick to point out that Blakely has been here the longest. On Tuesday, Butler summed it up best when talking about the unique bond these select players have with each other.
“Then you have Blake (Ja’Quain Blakely), who’s 2016 class. He’s the last of the Mohicans, that class. We’re just really thankful for each other. We’ve been around each other through the very, very thick and the very, very thin. There’s that sense of camaraderie that I think is going to be for the rest of our lives. We are one of, I guess, probably eight people, if I’m counting correctly, who just stuck around from 2017 till now. I mean, we are real close in a lot of ways.”
Josh Heupel was asked for his thoughts on this senior class, who have continued to stay the course, and what he appreciates most about them.
“Facing adversity and running right into it. Never losing faith and just continuing to compete and grow. I think all the uncertainty of last offseason, December and January, to a new coaching staff arriving, them buying into it, a lot of them being great leaders inside of our program, been instrumental in how we have grown. To me, when I think about this group, it’s their ability to face adversity and step right through the fire.”
But it also takes players buying into the goals for the program, which Heupel understood. A good number of these players had been sold a bill of goods for a very long time, so when the new staff took over the program in January, their first priority was to get the older players to trust them. This is easier said than done. Heupel knew he just had to be honest through the process.
“I think a lot of coaches will tell you when they go into a new program, the older guys are the toughest guys to get to buy into it because they feel like they’re on the back end of their careers. To me, that hasn’t been the case at all inside of our program. I think we’ve had great buy-in from everyone throughout the course of the process.
“After our initial meeting (in January), I think there was some energy from them that, ‘Man, maybe things are going to be different.’ But like all young players, I think your actions speak a lot louder than your words. The consistency of what we did in those first two, three weeks was really important,” Heupel added.
This isn’t just fluff from a head coach. These players believe in this coaching staff and have put their trust in how they approach everything on and off the field. This group has continued to fight every single week for their teammates and coaches, which should tell you a little bit about how the locker room has embraced the new culture. The story on Tennessee has been well publicized over the last number of years, so for this team to be sitting at six wins with the possibility of a seventh against Vanderbilt shows the fight — and most importantly, the heart — in this group.
But they aren’t done just yet. They still have goals and aspirations, which Josh Heupel has emphasized all season and did so again on Monday.
“It’s for us that we’re going to finish as a program. We talked about that a little bit last week, but this is the end of the regular season. If we’re going to finish it, then our preparation’s going to be consistent but continue to get better. You’re constantly proving things to yourself. To me, that’s what we’re trying to do this Saturday.”