The Volunteers’ last-second 52-49 victory over Alabama puts UT back in college football’s elite
You probably saw it, either in the roaring throng of 101,915 at Neyland Stadium or as part of a CBS-TV national audience that peaked at 17 million viewers.
With 7:49 to go, down 49-42 to Alabama, it was do or die. With Bama defense playing the pass, quarterback Hendon Hooker handed off eight times to running backs Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small before hitting receiver Jalin Hyatt for a 13-yard touchdown—his fifth scoring catch of the day—to tie the score at 49-49 with 3:26 to go.
When Alabama’s drive stalled on the 33-yard line with 21 seconds on the clock, kicker Will Reichard sliced his 50-yard attempt just to the right of the crossbar.
Hooker had 15 seconds. He hit receiver Ramel Keyton for 18 yards to midfield. Nine seconds left. Hooker rolled right and lofted a pass 27 yards to receiver Bru McCoy at the 23. In a clutch move worthy of a superhero, the six-foot-three, 220-pound McCoy leaped high between two defenders and, even as he was hit from both sides, came down with the ball. Tennessee called timeout with two seconds to go.
“The coaches and players are the calm in the storm,” said coach Josh Heupel. “They just continue to reset. Whatever happens, they are ready to go and compete on the next series.”
Kicker Chase McGrath had missed an extra point earlier. “It wasn’t my cleanest hit,” said McGrath. Still, his 40-yard kick went straight, dropping just over the crossbar. Then-No. 6-ranked Tennessee had edged No. 2 Alabama to bring its record to 6-0, the Vols’ first 6-0 start since the national title season of 1998.
As all of us know, the Orange faithful, many blowing smoke from stogies, poured onto the field in joyous mayhem. “I saw the south goalpost come down and I headed north,” said veteran college football scribe Ivan Maisel. “Then I saw the north goalpost come down.” Students marched some parts to the Sigma Chi house, others down Cumberland and into the Tennessee River.
“What an unbelievable show of energy from our fans,” said Heupel. “The student body is just electric. The Vol Walk is the most unique thing in college sports. Tonight’s was unlike anything I’ve experienced.” The win pushed the Vols to No. 3 in the AP poll, setting up Oct. 22 and Nov. 5 showdowns with No. 19-ranked Kentucky and No. 1-ranked Georgia.
“It’s definitely history,” said safety Trevon Flowers. “We’ll never forget this moment.”
Sometimes You See Something Special
Before that 1998 season, financial advisor, News Sentinel columnist, and former UT lineman David Moon gave a talk to the UT athletes, mainly about the downsides and upsides of living life in the Vol Nation fishbowl. He noticed the athletes looking for the reaction of a person in the middle. When that athlete nodded, they all nodded and bought in. “He was quiet but had something about him that drew his peers to look to him for reaction and cues,” said Moon at the time. “I did not know who the young man was, but he was obviously respected by the other athletes – and not just football players. He had the ‘it factor.’ Moon found out later it was quarterback Tee Martin. “That’s leadership,” said Moon in a Metro Pulse season preview. “Watch what happens on the field this season because the team does what he wants them to do.” Of course, Martin’s magic and charisma loomed many times during that championship season.
These past two seasons, we’ve seen a special brand of leadership from quarterback Hendon Hooker. That includes his partnership in excellence with backup Joe Milton III. “The main thing is for us to keep our foot on the gas,” said Hooker after Milton went 8-for-9 in the season opener against Ball State. “We’ve said all along there’s not gonna be a drop-off when he’s in the game.”
Hooker and Milton both came to UT as transfers—from Virginia Tech and Michigan, respectively. They are roommates and close friends. “We really go everywhere together,” Milton told Gabriel Jackson for a story in the Florida game program. “We’re always around each other. If you see me, you see him. It’s a brotherhood that can’t be broken, for sure.”
As Hooker told Jackson, “It’s deeper than football. We push each other to be better quarterbacks, but we’re really brothers. Blood couldn’t make us any closer. If I am going through anything, Joe is the first person I’m going to. I can always count on Joe to have my back, and I am always going to have his back.”
After the win over Florida, Hooker said calmly he was just grateful to be able to compete with his brothers, adding that the Volunteers pride themselves on having the best brotherhood in college football. The action on the field shows plainly that this is not idle talk. At nearly 25, Hooker is a person who is focused, disciplined, and always looking after the needs of his teammates.
Hooker directs the nation’s No. 1 offense, averaging over 550 yards per game. After the Florida victory, the Walter Camp Football Foundation named him as its National Offensive Player of the Week as he completed 22 of 28 passes for 349 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 112 yards and another touchdown.
The Bama game showed a national audience not only the talents and resourcefulness of 2021 Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, but also the many reasons that Hooker is very much in the running for the 2022 Heisman. After the last-second tumult of that game, Hooker said calmly, “We approach every game the same. It’s just another day at the office.”
For the LSU post-game interview, the News Sentinel ‘s Mike Wilson noted that Hooker wore a T shirt reading “Condredge Holloway,” showing images of Holloway and his nickname, the Artful Dodger. This season marks 50 years since Holloway became the first Black quarterback to start in the SEC. His 23 wins as a starting quarterback were the most by any Vol at the end of his three-year career. He is now immortalized as one of the statues in front of Neyland Stadium. “Just wanted to pay homage to one of the greats,” Hooker told Wilson.
“Here to do a job.”
With star receiver Cedric Tillman sidelined with an ankle injury for Florida, LSU, and Alabama, the receiving corps of Ramel Keyton, Jalin Hyatt, and Bru McCoy have made highlight catches seem routine.
Against Florida, with a minute left in the half, Keyton made an Avengers-like diving catch for 43 yards to the Florida 35 that led to a key touchdown. “Ramel and the other receivers are always doing extra work,” said Hooker. “They make plays like that on a daily basis. That’s why I have complete confidence in all my receivers.”
After his five touchdowns against Bama, Hyatt explained humbly that “it was just the looks that they were showing us, but a lot goes into it.” The coaches’ planning. The veteran offensive line that gave Hooker plenty of time in the backfield. “Personally, it was probably my best game,” Hyatt allowed, adding quickly, “I just feel blessed to be out there.”
Baltimore Orioles fans of a certain vintage recall crowd rumblings for slugger Boog Powell that sounded to untrained ears like “Booo!” Similarly, Vols fans may have confused TV viewers with their enthusiastic roars of “Bru!” Against Florida, he had electrified the crowd in the second quarter by taking a pass on the left sideline and gaining 70 yards to the Gator 4. In all, McCoy had eight catches against the Gators. In the post-game interview, McCoy—with his square-jawed George Clooney-ish good looks—was understated about the “roller-coaster” that had brought him from Southern Cal, through other unpleasant stops, to the word from the NCAA that he was eligible to play at UT. He came to UT to “do a job,” he said, and that is what he wants to do. Against Alabama, his 27-yard catch setting up the field goal heard ‘round the world most certainly did that.
In early October Joe Rexrode of The Athletic did a deep dive on the origins of Heupel’s wide-open offense and his understated but solid confidence. “Let’s go to Atlanta,” said Heupel last December when Hooker told him he was returning for his last season of eligibility. The SEC championship game seemed like a faint hope then but seems conceivable now.
Rexrode researched the pivot points in Heupel’s quarterbacking life—running the Run and Shoot offense in high school in South Dakota, opting for Dave Arslanian’s wide-open offense at Weber State in Idaho, tearing his ACL and going to Idaho’s Snow College, expecting to rejoin Arslanian at Utah State. But first-year Oklahoma coach Mike Leach picked Heupel out of junior college tapes films to run his Air Raid offense. In 1999, Bob Stoops took over as coach. Before the 2000 season, Heupel told his teammates they would win a national title. “Um, OK,” said linebacker Torrance Marshall. The Sooners delivered, and Heupel placed second in the Heisman balloting.
For nine years Heupel coached OU’s quarterbacks and coordinated the offense, coaching two Heisman winners. In 2015, he became offensive coordinator at Utah State then Missouri, where Brian White, Danny White’s brother, was deputy athletic director. In 2017, brother Brian recommended Heupel as head coach to brother Dave, then AD at the University of Central Florida. “We had this Ferrari of an offense, and we needed a new driver,” White told Rexrode. When brother Dave became AD at Tennessee, he hired Heupel, who hired like-minded Offensive Coordinator Alex Golesh, quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle, and other staffers receptive to innovative offensive ideas—who gather weekly to exchange new strategies. “It’s amazing,” Hooker said to Rexrode. “I call them the football scientists.”
Defense Coming Together
Defensive Coordinator Tim Banks came to Heupel’s staff last year after five seasons as co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach at Penn State, formerly known as Linebacker U. A Detroit native, Banks played cornerback for the Central Michigan Chippewas in the early ’90s, co-captaining a team that won a Mid-American Conference championship. He grad assisted at Bowling Green then coached at Ferris State, Bowling Green, Memphis (under Tommy West), Maryland, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati (both under Butch Jones, when Banks’ defense was a key to the team’s success), and Illinois. Banks has developed plenty of defenders who went on the NFL.
A work in progress last year, UT’s defense visibly stepped up against LSU, making five sacks and holding on several third and fourth downs. Defensive end Byron Young made two-and-a-half sacks. Linebackers Roman Harrison and Joshua Josephs made one each, while sophomore tackle Bryson Eason assisted on a sack. In the second quarter against LSU, after an incompletion on third and 1, tackle Kurott Garland punched into the backfield and linebacker Aaron Beasley stopped LSU running back Josh Williams for a 1-yard loss. Beasley ended up with nine tackles.
Through the first games, Banks—working through the losses of key defensive backs, notably cornerback Warren Burrell with a season-ending injury—has rotated as many as 25 players, including transfers and freshmen, giving them game experience and seeing who can play. Anchored by safety Trevon Flowers, who had 11 tackles against Alabama, Banks’s cast has included nickelbacks Tamarion McDonald, who made nine tackles against the Tide, and Wesley Walker, a Georgia Tech transfer; cornerback Christian Charles and safety Doneiko Slaughter (eight tackles each against Bama), cornerbacks Kamal Hadden, Brandon Turnage, and De’Shawn Rucker, along with safeties Jaylen McCollough and Andre Turrentine, an Ohio State transfer. Cornerback Dee Williams, a transfer from East Central (Mississippi) Community College who was sidelined with injuries for the first four games, made his first appearance at LSU by returning a punt 58 yards.
Play for the Breaks
General Neyland’s Game Maxim No. 2 was, “Play for and make the breaks. When one comes your way—SCORE.” At the start of the LSU game, walk-on special teams player Will Brooks recovered LSU’s fumble on the opening kickoff, leading to UT’s first touchdown. “He did that while getting hit in the mouth and falling out of bounds,” said Heupel proudly.
“There was a lot of wind, so the kick was short,” said Brooks, a redshirt sophomore and finance major from Vestavia Hills High School in Birmingham, Alabama. “I kinda saw it bounce off him. It took a good bounce and I slid into it. He and I collided, and he sort of popped me as I was headed out of bounds. I was a little sore the next day.” LSU was Brooks’ 18th game playing on special teams. “Coach Ek [special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler] always talks about being prepared, to make your shot count and take advantage of your chances. Coach Heupel and the other coaches don’t treat us like walk-ons. They give us our opportunities. I’m really enjoying being a walk-on.”
Against Alabama, Christian Charles provided a similar break by pouncing on a muffed punt in the second quarter that led to handy touchdown.
After each game, Heupel says that the team has some things to work on and they are a long way from where they need to be. After LSU, he said, “We’re a long way from playing our best football.” After Bama, he said, “This journey is just beginning, we’re halfway. There are a lot of things, starting with me, that we can start correcting.”
“We believe we can beat anyone on our schedule,” said Jalin Hyatt after the victory at LSU. “And we have a real chance of that this year.”