The Tennessee Volunteers say they know what they're doing and exactly what they want out of coach Josh Heupel's second season.
What they want is more wins — and Heupel believes they know how to reach that goal.
“There is great trust and belief in what we are doing,” Heupel said. “There are clear lines of communication. They understand the standards and expectations. They are able to just go out and compete.”
The Volunteers went 7-6 in Heupel's debut season, a big rebound after finishing 3-7 with a Southeastern Conference slate. It was Jeremy Pruitt's final season before his firing and a subsequent NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting issues that led to 18 major rules violations.
Heupel has his starting quarterback, top wide receiver and leading rusher back to run one of Division I's fastest offenses that averaged 2.99 plays per minute while setting eight single-season program records. Better yet, the coach said they're much more comfortable playing quickly.
Tennessee still faces whatever punishment is coming from the NCAA. The Volunteers chose to play in a bowl game last season after cutting 12 scholarships as a self-imposed punishment. Heupel said they've been very open with current players and recruits alike.
"We have positioned ourselves extremely well to swallow things up early and be able to compete for championships as we move forward,” Heupel said.
The Vols have a coveted quarterback room: Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton are a pair of experienced players atop the QB depth chart. Hooker came off the bench last season to set program records for a 181.4 passing efficiency and a 68% completion percentage. He threw 31 touchdowns with only three interceptions.
Milton, who lost the starting job to Hooker as a redshirt junior, returned rather than transfer again. They can help tutor freshman Tayven Jackson, and Hooker is much more relaxed for his sixth season overall and second with the Vols.
Hooker has receiver Cedric Tillman back after he caught 64 passes for 1,081 yards and 12 TDs last season. Tillman finished the season setting a school record with a TD pass in the final seven games. Jabari Small led the team with 796 yards rushing and nine TDs.
The Vols also return four of five starters on the line and eight overall for an offense that set school records scoring 511 points and 6,174 total yards. They averaged 39.3 points a game — seventh nationally.
Defensive tackle Matthew Butler now is in the NFL with the Las Vegas Raiders. But defensive lineman Byron Young and linebacker Jeremy Banks are among seven returning starters. Young and Banks tied for the team lead with 5 1/2 sacks and 11 1/2 tackles for loss apiece.
Banks finished second in the SEC and tied for seventh nationally with 128 total tackles.
One area Tennessee needs to improve this season is scoring in the second quarter. The Vols started fast outscoring opponents 190-51 in the first 15 minutes to lead 12 of 13 games. Once they switched ends, they found themselves outscored 143-109, including a 16-0 difference in their Music City Bowl loss to Purdue in December.
The Volunteers open the season in prime time on Sept. 1 hosting Ball State. They also host Akron, Florida, Alabama, Kentucky and Missouri at Neyland Stadium where they sold 58,871 season tickets with fans excited for Heupel's second season.
Tennessee has a challenging road trip Sept. 10 visiting Pittsburgh. The Vols also visit LSU on Oct. 8 and national champion Georgia Nov. 5. That's part of a challenging finish as the Vols face three road games in the final month, including trips to South Carolina before the regular season finale at Vanderbilt on Nov. 26.
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