Joe Milton III started off against Austin Peay completing one of his first eight passes. Some were slightly off. Some were dropped. “I didn’t start my best,” said Milton. Oregon transfer Dont’e Thornton Jr. had one deep pass go through his hands on the left sideline.
“We dropped a couple,” said Heupel. “We’re capable of doing better. Our quarterback and receivers were just not in sync in critical situations.”
Asked what he said to his receivers after the drops, Milton said, “I let them know they’re the best receivers in the country.”
The running game was impressive: Jaylen Wright ran for 124 yards, Jabari Small for 97, including a 38-yard scamper. Milton had three good runs, including a seven-yard touchdown.
“Joe was calm,” said Heupel. “He got to get into the flow of the game.” The Vols settled into a short passing game, “pitchin’ it from sideline to sideline,” said Milton. Ramel Keyton and Bru McCoy had five catches, Squirrel White had four. “Bru caught a nice deep dig,” said Heupel. After one catch, McCoy bulled his way through several defenders to stretch a 10-yard catch to 16, inspiring the familiar chants from the stands of “Bruuuuuu!”
“Bru’s effort and energy, that’s what the fans see,” said Heupel. The fans certainly noticed McCoy’s downfield blocking for 6’5”, 252-pound UC-Davis transfer tight end McCallan Castles, who grabbed a pass in the backfield and rumbled down the left sideline for a 43-yard touchdown.
“The fans did a great job,” said Heupel. The attendance was 101,915, the seventh straight sellout, the longest streak of sellouts since 2006. The Volunteers were also dapper in their gray uniforms with orange shoulders.
But UT had 10 penalties for 88 yards, including two pass interference calls on Kamal Hadden, who redeemed himself with an interception late in the game. With starting center Cooper Mays out with an injury, the offensive line was inconsistent in its pass protection. Mays is set to return for the Florida game on Saturday evening at 7 p.m. in Gainesville.
Despite being sacked seven times, Austin Peay quarterback Mike DiLiello hit on 29 of 39 passes for 260 yards, including one for a 52-yard TD. He also ran for 94 yards, 45 of them on a nifty fourth-down scamper.
Bright Spots on Defense
Defensive coordinator Tim Banks shuffled players in and out throughout the game, giving reps to those at various spots on the depth chart. Two sophomore ends—James Pearce Jr and Joshua Josephs—made an impression, the latter tallying two sacks. “They are two long, physical guys who know how to get after the quarterback,” said safety Wesley Walker. “We have a deep D line.” He also praised junior tackle Omarr Norman-Locke, an Arizona State transfer. “A hard-nosed worker,” said Walker. “He has really good feet, good hands.”
Walker made six tackles, including a fourth down sack. “It was a blitz,” he said, “a good play call by Coach Banks.” Weakside linebacker Aaron Beasley made nine tackles, five for losses and two for sacks. “He was violent,” said Heupel. “With his speed and athleticism, he played really well.”
“Just havin’ fun playin’ ball,” Beasley explained. With BYU transfer middle linebacker Keenan Pili out with an injury, sophomore Elijah Herring and freshman Jeremiah Telander stepped up, with Telander notching six tackles. “J Tel is a dog,” said Beasley. “It’s his relentlessness, his dog mentality.”
Paying Tribute to the Artful Dodger
The week before the Austin Peay game, quarterback Milton got together with Condredge Holloway, the Artful Dodger, who was honored for his achievements from 1972 to ’74 as the SEC’s first Black starting quarterback. Holloway wore No. 7, as Milton does today. “A shout out to Condredge Holloway,” said Milton. “I got to spend time with him, and I am truly honored for that.”
Milton’s strategy for Saturday night’s game at Florida, his home state, will be to practice hard and execute. “When you prepare the right way,” he said, “you go back home and execute.”