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A season filled with obstacles and coming of age stories filled the 2021 campaign for the Tennessee Vols, as they look to cap it all off with a win on Thursday. We witnessed the emergence of Hendon Hooker onto the scene, along with a few players who might have been a second thought headed into the season. But, the biggest component to this football team has been the consistency to buy into what head coach Josh Heupel has been preaching for ten months.
One of the players that has been a byproduct of buying into the coaching philosophy from Heupel and his staff has been Cedric Tillman. There were times where we wondered what kind of player he actually is or could he take the next step in the receiver room. Well, we figured that out this season, as he continued to have monster games, turning heads in the process. Tillman should be looked upon to be a leader for this team and his position group next season. The loss of Velus Jones Jr. and Javonta Payton will hurt the Vols, but it’s up to Tillman to be the tone setter in 2022. When Josh Heupel was asked about the growth of players under this staff, he had nothing but great things to say about the wide receiver.
“He’s a great representation of continuing to put your head down, continuing to work. The more you put into it, the more you’re going to get out of it. It doesn’t always happen for everybody the first day you step on campus. For some it does. You’re going to face adversity. You’ve got to continue to compete as you go through your career. That’s on this level, that’s at the next level if you’re able to get to that point. It’s a great example of continuing to work and compete. He’s a young man that has played really well, but has a bright, bright future inside this game. He’s only going to continue to get better.”
The Vols are practicing at Vanderbilt this week, leading up to the Music City Bowl on Thursday against Purdue. To be honest, the work is done, but this group needs to stay prepared over the next few days, which is why you’re seeing this team continue to grow. This football team wants to continue practicing, they want to continue as long as they can, before some of these guys have to move on. There’s a different feel with this group, and they’d like to continue playing football together for a few more days. They want to be in Nashville, to finish off this season.
The leadership on this team and the guys that have grown up in front of the eyes of fans won’t be forgotten from the 2021 season. Going forward, Tennessee will be led by Hendon Hooker, who finally gives the Vols some kind of consistency at a position that’s been lacking for a number of years. Josh Heupel was asked if there is another level to Hooker’s game, and his answer should excite fans in 2022.
“It didn’t go perfect for him early in the year. Man, he continued to put his nose down and only competed and worked harder. You look at how he’s played throughout the season – he’s a young player, I know he’s coming back for his last year, but he’s continuing to get better in everything he’s doing throughout the course of the season. For him, in offseason, being comfortable in what we’re doing, but being able to just go through quarterback school with us, understand the game of football better and get better fundamentally. It’s things that, when he gets back in January, we’ve already pinpointed what he can get better at. It’s just a constant growth and evolution of who you are as a player.”
The talk around the college football world has been about Covid-19 and getting these bowl games played. We’ve seen the cancellations of at least four games so far, but Josh Heupel knows that his players have taken this seriously from the start of the season and they’ll continue following protocols until they cross the finish line.
“We’ve been very fortunate that our guys that are non-vaccinated have done a great job taking care of themselves throughout the entire year. We’ll continue to follow the testing protocols set forth by the league. You want your kids to be smart in how they handle themselves and make sure they do take care of themselves, their teammates and their families.”
As for the environment, well you can expect a pro-Tennessee crowd on Thursday, though that’s not to say Purdue won’t have a nice contingent of fans. But Josh Heupel has been preaching about owning the state of Tennessee and building relationships across the mid-state. Well, he’s a waking billboard this week and he’ll take every advantage he can of the circumstances. Heupel understands that 2023 is a very big year for his staff, in regards to recruiting the state.
“I’m excited for the game day environment, absolutely, our players are too. This is Tennessee territory and excited to see all of our fans here.”
It’s all about recruiting, even during bowl season.