Coach Josh Heupel and Quarterback Hendon Hooker’s up-tempo offense makes all things possible in 2022
In college football, the past is never dead. It is not even past. As long as Lane Kiffin walks the Earth, there will be airborne mustard bottles and golf balls in fans’ minds. OK, the behavior of some fans at last year’s Ole Miss game was not good, but it gave UT Coach Josh Heupel the chance to say to his visiting recruits, “Look at the fan base: This is how much these fans love this team and how passionate they are.” Former Knox County Commission Chair Hugh Nystrom showed up for the next game in a French’s Mustard T-shirt, and Heupel got every recruit he wanted.
Let Us Not Praise Former Coaches
To remind us how lucky we are to have Heupel and the 7-6 team with 15 starters returning that will probably go 9-3 this year, let’s look back at our recent history. Kiffin was hired in 2008 because his dad, Monte, was a wily defensive coordinator who knew how to get players ready for the NFL. Kiffin the younger featured an outsized, untucked polo and lost to Bama because he forgot he needed a field goal kicker. He earned Spurrier-level animus from Vols fans by deserting Knoxville for the beaches of Southern Cal. Four years later, AD Pat Haden called Kiffin off a team bus on an airport tarmac at 3 a.m. and fired him. From Vols fans to Pat Haden: respect.
Derek Dooley taught us to tuck in our polos, even have them tailored, and to throw down clipboards, kick the turf, and scream like a baby at quarterbacks. He lost to LSU because he sent too many players on the field. Then came Butch Jones, who deemed Alvin Kamara not good enough to carry the ball for the Vols. Then came three years of Jeremy Pruitt, an ogre-ish figure out of a middle-earth movie who was nasty to players (while paying them) and did so many bad things that UT would be on probation forever if the NCAA weren’t falling into the earth like a Tolkien kingdom.
So just over a year ago we met Josh Heupel. It seemed weird at first that our new athletic director, Danny White, fresh from the University of Central Florida, simply hired the coach he had there. But Heupel has proven to be a rare find. He has an unassuming, down-to-earth way about him, and speaks grammatically—a welcome change of pace from Jones and Pruitt. Our decade of coach fatigue made it easy to miss that Heupel had gone 28-8 in his three seasons as head coach at UCF. Moreover, he has an admirable Horatio Alger-type bio as a player and an impressive pedigree as a coach.
From Aberdeen to Snow College to the Sooners
Born in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Heupel grew up in the film room with his dad, Ken, the coach at Division II Northern State University. Heupel quarterbacked the Aberdeen Central Golden Eagles to the state quarterfinals. Major college scouts don’t often make it to the South Dakota high school quarterfinals, so Heupel played his freshman year at Weber State in Ogden, Utah, then moved to Snow College, a community college in Ephraim, Utah. Heupel made junior college All-America and moved to Oklahoma, where he passed the Sooners to an undefeated season, a national title, and finished as runner-up for the 2000 Heisman. As an assistant coach for the Sooners for nine years, he helped mentor Jason White and Sam Bradford to Heismans in 2003 and 2008, respectively. As an offensive strategist, assured a staff member, “He’ll outsmart you in every which way.”
Heupel said at SEC Media Days that, on arriving at UT, he set out to be “extremely real, extremely transparent, talk less, listen more, find out the things that were right, things that were broken, and be consistent with standards and expectations.” In the toxic Pruitt environment, the players were a bunch of individuals, not good at working with each other. Team-building activities included dodge ball, food trucks on Tuesday evenings, baseball games, and a boat trip on a coach’s boat.
“We continue to build accountability, connection, and the culture we want to have inside of the building,” said Heupel at UT’s Media Day. “There is a difference between teams that believe they can win and those that expect to win. Using the word ‘expect’ rather than ‘believe’ is something we have talked about. A year ago, none of our players and a good portion of our staff had ever been through a training camp together. Today there is greater trust and belief in what we are doing. There are clear lines of communication. They understand our standards and expectations.”
“Tempo is our identity.”
Heupel’s up-tempo offense spreads the field wide, uses lightning-quick quarterback decision-making, and exhausts opponents’ defenses. “Tempo is one of the tools we use to apply pressure to a defense,” explained Heupel. “Tempo is our identity,” echoed a staff member. The offense does not yet have a name, like the West Coast, Air Raid, or Run-and-Shoot. We might modestly suggest Vols Racing Out On the Move, or VROOM.
At first, Heupel picked cannon-armed Michigan transfer Joe Milton III to direct the offense. After Milton tore two ligaments in his ankle in the second game, Heupel switched to Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, who became one of the nation’s most explosive quarterbacks, hitting 68 percent of his passes for 31 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He also ran for 616 yards and five touchdowns, third-most ever for a UT quarterback.
Old Man Hen
Hooker’s dad, Alan, was an All-America quarterback at North Carolina A&T and the 1986 National Black College Offensive Player of the Year. As recounted by News Sentinel beat writer Adam Sparks, when Hendon was 3, his dad was on the road a lot as an AT&T academic recruiter. To keep the kids connected, Hendon’s mom, Wendy, showed Alan’s game films and mimicked his play calls with flash cards. “We ran the old Pittsburgh Steelers system with colors and numbers representing the plays,” said Alan. “So, Wendy would hold up red and a number, and Hendon would say, ‘Red 15! Red 15!’ That’s how he learned his numbers and colors, being a little quarterback just like Daddy.” By 10, Hendon was adjusting pass protections and calling audibles for his Pop Warner team. It’s fitting, then, that the children’s book, The ABCs of Scripture for Athletes—which Hendon co-wrote with his younger brother, Alston, a redshirt freshman QB at A&T—has accompanying flash cards.
During an up-and-down playing career at Virginia Tech, Hooker earned his public relations degree. With eligibility remaining, he transferred to UT and started a master’s program in agricultural leadership, education, and communication.
In the 2021 preseason, when UT players were still deciding whether to buy into the Heupel system, Hooker told his teammates to trust the coaches, trust the process. If they did, Hooker told them, Tennessee’s offense could light up the scoreboard. This aligned with Hooker’s serious, calm, and mature demeanor. “In high school, they called him ‘Old Man Hen,’” Hendon’s sister, Nile, a client service manager in Atlanta, told Adam Sparks. “He’s like everybody’s dad. In Little League, he’d invite his whole team over for a sleepover because he took care of everybody. He’s just super protective over anybody he loves — including his friends and his teammates.”
Now the advanced age of 24, Hooker made light at SEC Media Days of his younger teammates who don’t get his references to late-90s/early-’00s TV shows like The Famous Jett Jackson and The Jersey.
Hen and Ced Take a Trip to New York
Hooker spent all summer watching films and working to improve his game. “I pride myself on being the first one in and the last one out,” he said at Media Days. Before that event, Hooker and receiver Cedric Tillman were treated by the Spyre Sports Group to a two-day “networking and educational” trip to New York City as part of the new world of college athletes’ compensation for NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness). Hooker and Tillman got tips about building their brand and social media best practices, met with chief marketing officers for brands like Barstool Sports, Fanatics, and Topps trading cards, and posed in front of the Nasdaq billboard on Times Square. “This is creating real experiences and giving athletes ways to grow their brands and be better prepared on Day One when they’re drafted,” said James Clawson, Spyre co-founder and CEO. “They made a great impression. They are just phenomenal people.”
Tillman grew up in Las Vegas. His dad, also Cedric, was a receiver for the Broncos and Jaguars. In his UT career, Cedric the younger has been mentored by Marquez Callaway (now with the Saints), Jauan Jennings (now with the 49ers), and Josh Palmer (now with the Chargers). After catching 72 passes for 1,205 yards and 14 touchdowns—his biggest games coming against double coverage by formidable Georgia and Alabama—Tillman looms as one of SEC’s best receivers. “Ced is a naturally reserved guy,” said Hooker at UT’s Media Day. “He’s gone out of his comfort zone to step up in a leadership role.”
Plenty of Speedy Receivers, including Squirrel and Bru
With receivers Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton drafted by the Bears and Cardinals, respectively, Hooker will be looking for redshirt sophomore Jimmy Calloway; junior Jalin Hyatt, a deep threat speedster from Irmo, South Carolina; senior Ramel Keyton from Marietta, Georgia; and Southern Cal transfer Horace “Bru” McCoy, a “speed guy” from Palos Verdes Estates, California.
Three speedy freshman receivers—Chas Nimrod, from Bentonville, Arkansas; Kaleb Webb from Powder Springs, Georgia; and 5’10”, 160-pound Marquarius “Squirrel” White from Birmingham, Alabama—created a buzz in spring ball and made an impression working through the summer catching balls from the JUGS gun as late at 10 p.m. “When I was a freshman,” said senior safety Trevon Flowers at UT Media Day, “there wasn’t anybody in here doing extra work.”
Heupel describes Squirrel White as “a dynamic playmaker with the ability to run by anybody and everybody.” At UT Media Day, Offensive Coordinator Alex Golesh said, “It was so exciting to see his mental presence. He is mature beyond his years.” Cedric Tillman added, with respect, “For a little guy, he’s not afraid of anything.”
The receiving corps has seasoned leadership at tight end from Jacob Warren, a 6’6”, 246-pound redshirt senior from Farragut whose dad played for UT, and Princeton Fant, a sixth-year player from Nashville.
Jabari’s Changed Body and Tayven’s Blond Curls
After running for 796 yards and nine touchdowns last year, junior Jabari Small from Memphis worked his butt off in the offseason to, says Golesh, “change his body.” How did he do it? “I attacked my shoulders,” explained Small, now 5’11” and 213 pounds (up from 206 a year ago). “I did a lot of lower body work, pushing the sleds.”
He intends to carry the ball 20 times a game and be a playmaker. “Jabari is as focused as I’ve seen him since he’s been here,” said Golesh. “There’s a different look about him when he walks into the facility. He’s exuberant. He has a new confidence.” Sophomore Jaylen Wright, who ran for 402 yards and four touchdowns, starts off as the other main running back, with a couple of promising freshmen waiting in the wings.
At Media Day, backup QB Joe Milton echoed a football truism: “You’re always an ankle sprain away from starting.” OC Golesh noted that “Hendon and Joe carry themselves like they truly like each other, both taking ownership of their role as leaders.”
Freshman Tayven Jackson from Greenwood, Indiana—whose blond curls and arresting green eyes give him the aura of a young Patrick Mahomes—arrived at UT in January and is a quarterback of the future. He is happy that next year’s class includes 6’5” hotshot Nico Iamaleava from Downey, California.
An Experienced Offensive Line, With Cooper Setting the Pace
As a practical matter, the tempo of the offense starts with 6’3”, 296-pound junior center Cooper Mays, a Knox Catholic grad who knows every aspect of the game and senses exactly how quickly the VROOM offense can go.
On Mays’s right is 6’3”, 325-pound guard Javontez Spraggins from East St. Louis, Illinois, who a source describes as “a very large human being and a ground-and-pound force committed to putting his defensive tackle on the ground,” which he usually does. At left guard, senior communications studies major from Memphis Jerome Carvin did not allow a sack all season in 896 snaps.
Darnell Wright will fill the right tackle spot left by Cooper’s brother Cade Mays, now with the Carolina Panthers. A 6’6” 335-pound senior from Huntington, West Virginia, Wright, one of the best tackles in the country, moves from left tackle to right, “what he felt was his natural home,” said Golesh.
Protecting Hooker’s blind side at left tackle will be 6’5”, 315-pound senior Jeremiah Crawford, a transfer from Butler (Kansas) Community College, or 6’6” 337-pound Florida transfer Gerald Mincey, a redshirt sophomore from Fort Lauderdale.
Look for an Improved Defense
Seven starters return to the defense that last season allowed 421.7 yards per game and had the SEC’s worst pass defense. Tackle Matthew Butler is now with the Raiders while defensive backs Theo Jackson and Alontae Taylor are with the Titans and Saints, respectively.
“Four or five games we could have won in the fourth quarter,” said Heupel at SEC Media Days. An improved defense will help. Senior defensive end Byron Young—not to be confused with Alabama senior defensive end Byron Young—is one of the best “edge rushers” in the SEC.
On his best plays, he seems to be all over the opposing quarterback in a heartbeat. “A freak,” apprised safety Jaylen McCollough at UT Media Day. “He makes my job a lot easier.” Said Heupel, “Byron has transformed his body, added weight, trimmed up, and in leadership, communication, trust, taken a step as a person.” Freshman Joshua Josephs from Kennesaw, Georgia, will have to step up as edge rusher on the other side.
Defensive tackle Omari “Big O” Thomas, a 6’4”, 320-pound junior from Memphis, has a knack for batting balls at the line. (He and Jabari Small have been teammates since middle school.)
Linebackers Jeremy Banks, a redshirt senior from Cordova, Tennessee, and Aaron Beasley, a senior from Franklin, Georgia, are joined by 6’5”, 260-pound Tyler Baron, a “very bright,” (says Heupel) Knox Catholic grad; Nebraska transfer Jackson Hannah from Montgomery Bell in Nashville; and last year’s Texas transfer Juwan Mitchell, from Newark, New Jersey, by way of Mater Dei (Kansas) Community College.
“We shot ourselves in the foot in some games,” said safety Trey Flowers at Media Day. He, McCollough, and cornerback Warren Burrell—all three from Georgia hometowns—must stop big plays, aided by three transfers. Two are graduates of Nashville’s Ensworth School—Wesley Walker from Georgia Tech and Andre Turrentine from Ohio State. Dee Williams, from Forsyth, Georgia, came in January from East Central (Mississippi) Community College and excelled in spring drills.
News Sentinel columnist John Adams predicted that the Vols’ chances of going 9-3 hinge on the September 10 game against Pitt, ranked No. 17 in the AP preseason poll. UT’s revamped, retrained defense will make the difference. “We’ve been watching the films,” said Flowers, “the good, the bad, and the ugly. In practice we’re asking how accountable are we being on every rep, so that on second and one, third and two, when we’re tired, we can relate back to what we’re training our bodies to do.”