Being back on a football field gives the Tennessee Volunteers to hit the reset button after a rough few months.
The list of setbacks and disappointments is long.
The Vols received a bowl invitation despite a 3-7 record, then lost it a day later due to COVID-19 issues in December. Tennessee fired coach Jeremy Pruitt and nine others Jan. 18 for NCAA rules violations. Danny White was hired as the new athletic director, and then he hired Josh Heupel as the new coach on Jan. 27.
There's been a flood of players entering the transfer portal, three signees released from their letters of intent and 11 choosing to stick around and use the extra year of eligibility allowed after the coronavirus pandemic.
“Obviously last year was not what anybody expected, wanted, needed or hoped for,” defensive end Matthew Butler said Friday. "So we have unfinished business with the University of Tennessee football program whether it’s last staff or this staff.”
Tennessee had to pause football activities last week due to multiple positive COVID-19 tests. Then Heupel pushed back the start of spring practice two days, and the Vols finally started Thursday.
“The thing that we’ve challenged our guys don’t make the same mistake twice," Heupel said. "Be coachable except coaching in a positive way.”
White brought Heupel from UCF to join him in Tennessee after the coach went 28-8 in three seasons with the Golden Knights. Heupel has 15 workouts this spring before the annual Orange & White game on April 24 to start the 100th season at Neyland Stadium.
Heupel's offense ranked second nationally in 2020 averaging 568.1 yards of total offense a game and eighth averaging 42.2 points a game. Tennessee ranked 108th nationally averaging just 21.5 points a game while going 3-7 in 2020 under Pruitt.
“I like the way the program is moving, I really love it,” said wide receiver Velus Jones Jr., who is using the extra year of eligibility after graduating and transferring from Southern California.
Getting the offense up to the fast pace Heupel wants will be a big focus this spring. He has quarterback Hendon Hooker, who transferred from Virginia Tech before Pruitt was fired, Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer competing.
Heupel said freshman Kaidon Salter is among the group of players suspended indefinitely from team activities right now. Linebackers Martavius French and Aaron Willis and defensive lineman Isaac Washington were among five people arrested for an incident earlier this month at a dorm on campus.
Salter was a four-star recruit from Cedar Hill, Texas, who signed with Tennessee over Auburn and Baylor. Heupel said it's being handled on campus.
“As we receive information, we’ll act accordingly,” Heupel said.
As Heupel and the Vols work, there's an NCAA investigation into the rules violations that got Pruitt fired. Heupel is Tennessee's fifth different coach since the end of the 2008 season at a program with only five winning seasons since last winning the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division in 2007.
“It’s a new start, it’s a new era for us," senior cornerback Alontae Taylor said.
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