What Josh Heupel said after Tennessee football's Orange & White Game at Neyland Stadium

IMG_3593by:Grant Ramey04/13/24


Tennessee Football Head Coach Josh Heupel Recaps Volunteer's Spring Game I Volquest I Gbo

Everything Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel said after the Vols concluded spring practice Saturday afternoon with the Orange & White Game at Neyland Stadium, with the Orange Team winning 21-14 in the annual split-squad scrimmage:

Opening Statement

“Great to be out there. Beautiful day, man, spring in Knoxville. Appreciate all the VFLs coming back. Had so many start trickling in really on Thursday and a lot of those guys were out there for practices in the lead up to the spring game, but a great weekend for those guys, too. Some of the festivities, brotherhood, getting an opportunity to get together. So great to see a lot of guys back here. Fans today were awesome. I know we were limited o 10,000 (fans) because of the $300 million renovation to the stadium, but it was great energy from everybody. And a great day just getting our players’ families back here into town, having an opportunity to see them before the game and then obviously afterwards. And a huge recruiting weekend for us, too. 

“So appreciate all the fans coming out. Enjoyed the Vol Walk, too. Opportunity to honor our basketball program, everything that those guys accomplished this past regular season. And a great group of guys too. Just look at (Santiago) Vescovi and Josiah (Jordan James) and what they’ve meant to this program, how selfless those guys were inside of the basketball program too. Awesome to be a part of honoring them today, too.”

Breaking down the play of Tennessee’s quarterbacks in the spring game

“All in all today out there, handled the mechanics, the game-like situation extremely well. Decisive, accurate for most of the day. A couple balls that were high in the middle of the football field. But all in all, I thought they handled themselves extremely well.” 

The play of Tennessee freshman QB Jake Merklinger

“I thought he handled himself really well. That’s a young guy. You guys have heard me say it, just as a coach, I kind of break it into thirds, the 15 practices that you get during spring ball. And just his growth, fundamentally understanding what we’re doing, defensive structures and being a good decision-maker is just continuing to grow throughout the course of spring ball. So today, in front of fans and to have an opportunity to play in the stadium, I thought did a really nice job.”

Tennessee quarterbacks throwing deep balls in the spring game and if he thinks the offense can be more explosive with big plays this season 

“Yeah, all those things got to come together. And it’s guys getting open, it’s structure of defenses, it’s quarterbacks being in the right spot, being accurate with the ball, it’s your protection up front. It’s going to take all 11 to function and operate that way. Certainly want that, need that to create some of those explosive plays throughout the course of spring ball. I thought we’ve gotten better here, the second half of it, being more on the same page and being more accurate with the football.”

Tennessee having more options at wide receivers and how he determines how deep the rotation will be on game days this season

“Guys that are going to play at a championship level, that have earned the right to play, it’s the coaches’ responsibility to put them in a position to go do the things that they do at a really high level. Don’t ask them to do things they can’t do. Ask them to do things that they can do. And so with everything, when we first got here as a staff, and where our program was at, being smart and intentional with the things that we’ve had to deal with to grow our roster, this is the deepest wide receiver pool that we’ve had. Now, there’s a lot of young guys within our system that still have a lot of growth that they got to make before we get to the opener. Really, before we get to training camp too. And that’s freshmen, transfers young guys inside of our system. But I love the competitiveness of that group. They’ve made plays. Fundamentally they’re getting so much better. Releases, (when) the ball (is) not in their hands, how they’re blocking, understanding how to stem and work second-, third-level defenders. It’s been been really good to see how they’ve grown and a lot left out there for them.” 

Where he feels Tennessee’s secondary is exiting the spring

“We gave a couple of big plays today that we were just out of position. And all in all that group length, athleticism, you’ve heard me say it throughout the course of spring ball that I really do like the athletic traits that we’ve got inside of that room. Most athletic that we’ve been at all five spots. They’ve made plays and end of the day we’ve got to find a core group that, including guys that we can rotate in that will play at the level we need them to. But all in all, I really like that group. 

How much they’ve used the new helmet communication allowed in college football

“Yeah, it’s still a work in progress as we continue into training camp. I think everybody inside of our league was limited to three of those devices that would work and operate on a day-to-day basis, including the scrimmages. And so we put two of them on the offense side early and spring ball transitioned into the defense. Both sides got to tinker and play with how it’s going to function and operate and our communication system will continue to evolve as we have a better idea with that.”

What Tennessee’s newcomers at receiver have brought to the offense

“Athleticism, ability to go attack the football at the catch point and competitive situations that can be over the middle, can be a deep ball that some would call, a 50-50 ball. I think those guys have continued to refine their traits at the line of scrimmage in press man coverage. It’s the transition for every high school, high level, high school wide receivers as they come to college. Typically they’re seeing a bunch of off coverage and making sure the defensive back isn’t getting run by so learning how to play at the line of scrimmage. They work, they compete, they got the ability to make plays.”

Tennessee early enrollee defensive backs Boo Carter and Marcus Goree Jr.

“Both of those guys, love their traits in the building. They’re high level competitive individuals that have grown within the structure of our program, doing the right things outside of the building as well. They’re intentional in the way that they sit in a meeting room, soak up knowledge and try to grow in their understanding of fundamentals, technique and scheme. They’re physical guys. We do tackle sessions. Both of those guys are willing to stick their face in it. 

“They have speed, you saw Boo catch some returns today and you know Marcus is a guy since he got here, I think he’s put on 20-plus pounds in a short amount of time. I think that speaks to just how focused and intentional they are and what they’re doing every day. So two young guys from here instate that we absolutely love.”

What stood out about redshirt freshman running back DeSean Bishop

“For him coming off of his injury, getting healthy, having for the most part, in our buildup for spring ball, had a full offseason. Thought he did a really good job. Got a ton of opportunities this spring. Felt like coming off of an injury, whether it was mentally or just transitioning back into the ball side of it, continued to grow really well throughout the course of the spring. He ran well, sees it, what’s happening up in front of him extremely well and does a great job pressing the line of scrimmage, using blockers. I thought today he got behind his pads probably better than he has. That’s an area of growth for all of our running backs that we gotta get better at as we get to kickoff.”

Tennessee freshman wide receiver Mike Matthews’ block on the edge to set up a touchdown

“It’s one of the ways — Mike’s experiences on the defensive side of the ball just in high school. He’s grown in his understanding of how to be physical and still be in a good body position. But he’s willing to be physical. He’s continued to grow throughout the course of spring, playing without the ball in his hands. And you know, he’s a guy that goes about his business every day and competes extremely hard. He’s got a high competitive care factor, makeup.”

What he thought about how Tennessee’s defensive line performed throughout the spring

“Yeah, all in all, that group, who they are in the meeting room, how they interact, coach each other on the practice field, but in the meeting room too, they’ve done a great job. Some experience that’s helping the young guys grow. That room’s changed so much over the course of my tenure here. Coach (Tim) Banks and Coach G (Rodney Garner) and Coach Eck (Mike Ekeler) have done a great job with the makeup of who the people are and you know, their accountability inside of our program.

“They’ve been violent. I think they’ve grown with their ability to play with their hands. That’s in pass rush. But it’s also, you know, snagging off the blocks and being able to make plays in the run game, too. So our first group, obviously today, those guys were limited in the number of plays some of those vets got, but all in all, it’s a really good group.”

The difference in Nico Iamaleava at the end of this spring compared to a year ago

“Just there’s so much growth, like, from any quarterback as they go through the early stages of learning what it takes to play college football. How intentional, how much time he spends inside of the building, which leads to the understanding of what we’re doing offensively. Understanding the why behind it is really important for players as well. The structures of defenses, protections, being able to understand when you’re hot, when you gotta get rid of the ball outta your hands, how to slide protections and get yourself in good matchups. He controls — our quarterbacks control a lot more than people think in our run game, and just continued growth there. Got really good command. He does a great job being intentional in a leadership role, communication role, in one-on-one situations. Gonna have to continue to grow as a leader inside of our program as he goes through his career. That’s typical of every young quarterback.”

What factors he’ll consider when deciding on whether or not to add a player from the transfer portal

“Yeah, end of the day, you’re trying to make your roster as good as it can be. We’ll go through that process, have exit meetings with our own players. I think the culture piece is extremely important in particular at this time of the year ’cause there’s not a lot of time with them before you get to training camp. So it’s gotta be mature guys that you’re bringing into your program, too.”

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