SEC Spring Check-In: Tennessee has a new quarterback and a whole lot of optimism

On3 imageby:Joe Cook04/02/24

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Before the Texas Longhorns officially join the Southeastern Conference on July 1, Inside Texas is going around the SEC to check in with each of Texas’ new conference mates for updates on the latest spring storylines, important roster notes, and much more as the Longhorns embark upon life in a new league.

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Austin Price, assistant editor of VolQuest, took the time to answer a few questions about the Tennessee Volunteers as they enter year four under Josh Heupel. The Longhorns are not scheduled to face Tennessee this year.

1. How much different will the SEC be in ’24 not only with Texas and Oklahoma joining, but also the elimination of divisions?

It will be different for sure! You are talking about two big brands and storied programs that both seem to have some momentum coming off last year. Texas obviously has the most momentum having made the College Football Playoff.

I love that they have eliminated divisions because so many times over the years the best two teams have come from the same side. Early on it was Tennessee and Florida as the top two teams in the SEC and in recent years it would’ve been two teams from the West. Had the new rule been in place two years ago, Tennessee would’ve rematched with Georgia in Atlanta, so I think it gets the best two teams squaring off for the SEC championship.

2. What is the spring storyline to track on offense for the Vols (transfers, star recruits, coaches coming and going, etc.)?

The addition of former LSU 5-star offensive lineman Lance Heard is maybe the biggest storyline on offense. All eyes are on Nico Iamaleava but you have to keep him upright if he is going to have success and the addition of Heard certainly helps that. Tennessee is way more athletic at both wide receiver and tight end heading into this fall so this spring is big for those units.

3. What’s the spring storyline to track on defense for the Vols?

Tennessee’s greatest strength is their depth on the defensive line. Their third string is super impressive with each of those kids likely playing a major role at any other school in the conference. That will help the secondary, which had a major overhaul this offseason. Tennessee appears to be more athletic in the back end of the defense. Texas native and Oregon State transfer Jermod McCoy has flashed since arriving and he has a chance to be really good this fall. 

4. Which returner from the 2023 roster was the most important for Vols?

For me it’s Cooper Mays. Tennessee’s starting center isn’t the biggest or the strongest you are going to encounter but his toughness, football IQ and knowledge of Heupel’s up-tempo offense makes him super important to Iamaleava and the offense. He missed the first month of the season last year, and it was very noticeable that the offense did not play with the same pace and consistency. It will be very important for him to stay on the field this coming season.

5. Which transfer portal addition was the most important for Vols?

We will stay on the offensive line with someone we have already talked about and that is Lance Heard. Take one look at the Louisiana native and you can see why he was so highly thought of coming out of high school. He is a mountain in terms of size and flashes unbelievable athleticism. The combination of both he and John Campbell, who has flipped over to the right side of the offensive line, should give Tennessee to anchors to protect the edge.

6. Which class of 2024 signing was the most important for Vols? 

Tennessee needed to get more athletic at wide receiver and they did that with the signings of 5-star Mike Matthews and 4-star Braylon Staley. Both have been really impressive early in spring practice by showcasing speed and critical playmaking ability. Tennessee was not nearly as explosive on offense last year because their wide receivers weren’t nearly as explosive as the group they had in 2022. It’s not unrealistic to think that both players can have an impact this fall. 

7. The game Tennessee fans have circled on the 2024 schedule is…

I think it would be Alabama. Nick Saban has dominated the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry since 2007 but the win two years ago gave Tennessee fans a special feeling that will be talked about for a long time. This series has traditionally been one of runs and streaks and with Saban gone, the Vol faithful see opportunity to get some momentum going. This game is in Knoxville and for the first time in a long time, the optimism, heading into the third Saturday in October will be high.

8. What are Tennessee fans’ impression of Texas?

I think the impression is that Texas carries a lot of history and tradition, but there will also be a lot of fun banter back-and-forth about who is the real UT. These two teams are going to link up not only in football, but in basketball and baseball and women’s basketball for years to come, which will make for a fun new rivalry for Tennessee fans. Tennessee has played in Oklahoma in the last decade in football so I know Tennessee fans are eager to make their first trip to Austin hopefully in 2026. 

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SEC Spring Check-Ins

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