Tennessee’s Josh Heupel Deciding Which Playmakers Fit Best With Hendon Hooker

Entering his second season as head coach at Tennessee, Josh Heupel and his staff find themselves in a much better position when it comes depth, or at least an understanding of what they have at certain positions.

This wasn’t the case heading into the season opener in 2021, when they were still seeking  playmakers.

Hendon Hooker and Cedric Tillman’s returns are obviously massive when it comes to production and accountability on offense, but having an offensive line they trust doesn’t hurt either. The one position along the line that still needs filled is left tackle. Darnell Wright is holding it down on the right side. After the Vols held their second scrimmage of fall camp on Sunday, it became obvious that the ongoing battle between Jeremiah Crawford and transfer Gerald Mincey will undoubtedly bleed into the season opener.

“It’s been back and forth a little bit through training camp,” Heupel said. “Both of them have made a bunch of progress from spring ball, and really since the beginning of training camp, in understanding what we’re doing offensively. In the run game, playing with better pad level, being able to create some movement up front. Both of them have taken major strides in the pass pro side of it, too. I feel like those guys are continuing to progress as they should.”

KNOXVILLE, TN – August 09, 2022 – Running back Jabari Small #2 of the Tennessee Volunteers during 2022 Fall Camp practice at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

While the staff contemplates who will be blocking upfront, Jabari Small continues to prove why he’ll be the starter at running back. Despite dealing with a shoulder injury in 2021, Small was still able to account for 796 yards rushing and 9 touchdowns. Doing this with a banged up shoulder is a testament to how much Small wants to be a contributing factor for this offense. Last fall he was also splitting time with former running back Tiyon Evans, who has since moved on to Louisville. But having a deep backfield is pivotal for this football team, especially after playing five different guys last season.

Tennessee’s staff understands the importance of having a guy who can not only find open space or be utilized as a receiving weapon out of the backfield, but also as someone who can be a willing blocker. Protecting Hendon Hooker is pivotal to this team’s success. So finding the right guys to backup Jabari Small is key. Besides Jaylen Wright, who has been battling back from injury, Heupel knows there will be times he needs to rely on the freshmen – something easier said than done.

“The two young guys in particular (Dylan Sampson and Justin Williams-Thomas), I think have grown throughout the course of training camp. Just where their eyes are at, understanding protections and being able to handle the football game as it truly gets played out in a live situation. We’re going to need a bunch of guys at that position. Just the nature of football. It’s the nature of that position, it’s the nature of playing inside of this league. (it’s) an extremely physical league.”

KNOXVILLE, TN – August 09, 2022 – Running back Dylan Sampson #24 of the Tennessee Volunteers during 2022 Fall Camp practice at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

As for what the Vols will do at wide receiver to replace Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton, it could come down to a trio. But this season can’t be a duplication of 2021, where they were practically holding tryouts over the first few games. It was after the Florida game last season when OC Alex Golesh and Heupel decided that it was time to get the ball to the veterans more often and stop giving so many snaps to guys who hadn’t caught on quick enough.

The move to put Velus Jones Jr. in the slot and Tillman and Payton on the outside paid dividends, as the offense became more of a threat down field and in space.

Tennessee Enters Year Two Under Josh Heupel With Higher Expectations And Veteran Leadership. 

KNOXVILLE, TN – August 09, 2022 – Quarterback Hendon Hooker #5 of the Tennessee Volunteers during 2022 Fall Camp practice at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

We still have a few weeks before the Vols take the first snap of the season and Heupel is going to take every minute until kickoff to find the right weapons for Hendon Hooker. A player like Walker Merrill, who has the potential to be a problem for opposing teams, has really caught the eye of the coaching staff. His ability to get open in space and also be a guy who can stretch the field hasn’t gone unnoticed, which could lead to significant playing time.

KNOXVILLE, TN – August 09, 2022 – Wide receiver Jalin Hyatt #11 of the Tennessee Volunteers before 2022 Fall Camp practice at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Jalin Hyatt entered fall camp looking to put last season behind him, and multiple reports suggest he’s done just that. But there are a number of wide receivers that Tennessee needs to take the next step. And with the season opener creeping up, their time to impress in camp is ticking by.

Tennessee Wrapping Up Renovations To Neyland Stadium

Whether Bru McCoy is eligible or not (still TBD) hasn’t taken away his focus on the field. The USC transfer is still waiting for approval to play this season, but many folks around the program tell me they are optimistic it’ll be coming soon enough. Unfortunately, you never know in these situations and Heupel has yet to put on the public push, so that should tell you something. But while the waiting game continues, he’s still showing his ability on the field. After missing last week’s scrimmage, he was making plays on Sunday – which should be a good sign for an offense needing another talented playmaker.

Tennessee Vols Bru McCoy
Tennessee WR Bru McCoy during the Vols fall camp practice. Photo by Trey Wallace

Whether it’s on the offensive side or defensive side, Josh Heupel knows the importance of the next few weeks. After two scrimmages, the staff should know by now what they’ve got at certain spots. But, position battles will continue at a number of spots, as the offensive staff looks to make sure everyone is on the same page. They obviously want to avoiding having to make the same decision as they did in ‘The Swamp’ last season.

“So, there’s still a ton of competition. We’ve had a couple guys that have missed a day or two here and there through training camp,” Heupel said. “This next block will be important to see those guys function and operate and handle the totality of what we’re doing offensively and ultimately prove that they deserve to be on the football field and play.”

We’re certainly getting closer to kickoff.

 

Follow @TreyWallace_ for continuing coverage of fall camp around college football.

Written by Trey Wallace

Wallace started covering the SEC in 2012, as the conference landscape was beginning to change. Prior to his time in Knoxville, Wallace worked in Nashville for The Read Optional, where he first produced content that garnered national attention. His passion for sports is evident in his work and has led him to break some of college football’s biggest stories. His social media reach and natural podcast proficiency continue to make Wallace one of SEC’s most trusted sources.

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