Tennessee-Bowling Green: Everything Josh Heupel said kicking off game week

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Tennessee is set to host Bowling Green Thursday (8 p.m. EDT, SEC Network) to kick off its 2021 season.

Ahead of Tennessee’s season-opening matchup, first-year head coach Josh Heupel met with media and discussed his team.

Below is a transcript of Heupel’s media availability provided by the University of Tennessee.

Opening statement

“It’s great to see everybody. It’s finally game week. I’m excited, and I know our staff and players are super excited and ready to play in a couple of days. We have been at work over the course of the weekend. We had three really good practices. Guys are mentally and physically in a really good spot. We need to clean some things up the next couple of days, but we are excited for the opportunity to go play inside Neyland Stadium. For our coaches, this will be their first opportunity to play inside Neyland, run through the T and experience the Vol Walk. I am unbelievably excited about those opportunities and the chance to live out those traditions. We are back to a normal capacity and atmosphere inside Neyland Stadium. We are excited to go out and show the work we have put in during the last seven to eight months to go play some football.

“I mentioned at the beginning of training camp that we thought we would have a starting quarterback by game week. Joe Milton III will be our starting quarterback. We talked to those guys earlier about that. We won’t name a backup. I believe in what those guys are ready to do if given the opportunity. All three of them have continued to grow and compete. Joe’s had the opportunity to take a bunch of reps with the [first string] as of late. I believe in Harrison Bailey and Hendon Hooker as well. They’ve handled the meeting room and practices the right way. I’m excited about that room as a collective group.”

On going into his first game as the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers

“It’s the first time that we get to compete together as a program. We have experienced a lot of things on the practice field and outside of football with team building. We have tried to create some adverse situations, but this will be our first time to go do it in a live situation. We will find out who we are. It’s that point in training camp when it’s time to go hit somebody wearing another color. We will make some mistakes but will also make a bunch of plays. We will have fun competing together. We will learn how to handle adversity and how to communicate with each other. We are in a really good spot. I love the group that we are working with. They bought in to doing it the right way. Every year is a different journey. This is week one of our new journey, and I’m excited to kick it off. Anticipation is the word I’d use [to describe my feelings], and I’m excited about the opportunity.”

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On the deciding factor for naming Joe Milton the starting quarterback

“I don’t think there is just one thing. First of all, I really do mean it when I say that I love that group. They push each other and are really positive. Our team and offensive group see and feel that energy. All three of them have a positive effect on the offense and team as a whole. They’ve handled that throughout this entire process, which is really difficult to do. I really believe that all three of them will have an opportunity to go play at a really high level if given the opportunity. At the end of the day, Joe’s grasp of our offense in a short amount of time, his growth during the middle portion of training and his acceleration in what we are doing with his physical attributes and decision making led us to put the ball in his hands for the first game.”

On if he’s planning to play two quarterbacks

“Every game unfolds with a different situation. I’ve told our guys this and said it in here before, but it’s true, the strength of one position can never be one guy. All of them have to prepare like a starter. I anticipate (Joe Milton III) getting the ball first and playing his butt off in a really good way.”

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On how Hendon Hooker and Harrison Bailey took the news

“Both of them have handled it in a really positive way. I know that they know we believe in them. I think that is a big part of being able to handle that information. They have continued to get opportunities to grow in practice and they will believe in who they are and what they do in their future here.”

On how he handled camp as a player and being able to balance prep and rest

“I think you want to look at what your finished product on gameday (is). You want to be the freshest, fastest, most excited, most physical football team on the field. How do you rewind that? You’ve got to take care of (the team) in a way that they all are physically able to go compete at that level and play fast and physical. You have to continue to sharpen yourself as you go through the season, that’s true during the course of training camp. From this game week to what we do is pretty much systematic each week. As you go deeper into the season we pull back a little bit on the number of reps. As to how we go through training camp, I think there’s a science out there that we try to understand from our strength and conditioning staff to get them to be their best. We understand on the football side of it what we need to do to get them there. I think our kids feel good where they are at mentally, physically and emotionally to go play their best football here on Thursday night.”

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On when he realized Joe Milton III was his guy

“He has practiced with the one group for the last 7-10 days, somewhere in that range. I think we came out of our second scrimmage and felt like he had taken some positive steps in a shorter amount of time, as far as time on task. We continued to break up those reps pretty much evenly, Joe got a majority with the first-team offense there for the last part of training camp and here into this game week.”

On the role of the quarterback in the offense

“First of all, being a sound decision maker, getting (the ball) into playmakers hands is extremely important. There’s a lot more on them in the template that we play with as far as protections, run checks and pass-to-run or run-to-pass checks. There’s a lot on their plate that they’ve got to be able to process extremely quickly. That position is about extending and making plays. Sometimes that’s turning a negative into a zero, not just a big play that shows up on a stat sheet that everybody in the stadium can see too. All three of those guys have shown that ability. Joe (Milton) certainly has the ability to do that with his feet, escaping – some quarterback run game that Hendon (Hooker) can provide and Harrison (Bailey) can at times, as well. (Milton’s) ability to extend plays and broken plays turn into big plays is a part of who we have to be too.”

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On how much pride he takes in teaching players

“Coaching is teaching, just another word for it. From what you do in the classroom, to what you do in life, to your experiences on the football field, that’s simply what it is. Great coaches take great pride in being teachers. To go out on a practice field and you just hear a bunch of yelling and screaming, what is really inside of that message? The guys in our locker room are prideful, they want to play at a high level, they want to do it right. That’s been shown time and time again. If they’re not hearing your message right, you’ve got to look at how are you describing that message to them and making sure that you frame it in the right way where they can accept it, understand it, then go do it. In this game, it’s important to speak from passion, not emotion. I think that’s something we talk about as a coaching staff quite a bit.”

On how comfortable he is with the defense heading into the opener

“I’m excited about that group. When we finished up spring, that was a really thin unit hit hard by the transfer portal, a lot of it before I had even gotten here. Adding the transfers that we added, experience for a portion of them, some youth that can have multiple years here, depth, right culture pieces as well. I think that was a huge part, being able to hit on those guys in May that has helped our defense. The other part of it is the way kids that have been here since January, February have really grown inside each of their position rooms. I look at the linebacker group, as a completely different meeting room than we were in spring ball, some of the guys came back from injury but just their growth as individuals, human beings, and understanding what we’re doing. (We’ve) added some young pieces in the secondary with a few transfers, as well. The depth at the defensive line position – there’s great competition, you have to strain every day. Every rep counts, there’s pressure on you to go perform at a really high level. You’ve got great coaches on that side of the ball. They’re very cohesive, there is a great understanding of what we’re doing defensively and I’m excited watch these guys play on Thursday night, I really am. Through training camp, we always pull clips when we go into our team meeting of guys playing with great effort and strain. We use the word ‘attack’ inside of our team meeting room and that group, there are orange jerseys flying around every single day and it’s been fun to watch.”

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On quarterbacks making the right decisions as the game has changed

“Certainly the game is being played differently than it was 15 years ago, 10 years ago. Part of that is guys spreading the field and putting people in more one-on-one situations in space. If you make one guy miss, it turns into a bigger play than if you’re playing inside the box in 22 or 12 personnel. The decision-making for the quarterback position is a must. The guys that make consistently bad decisions are ultimately the ones that will get you beat. Yes, you’ve got to be a great decision maker. Yes, we want you to extend and make some big plays, too, but those plays present themselves. The first thing is learning how to not get beat and that doesn’t mean you pull the reins back on kids but learning and giving them opportunities to grow and how to make big plays inside of the play. The biggest part of the quarterback position is being a distributor of the ball. You need to be a great decision-maker in the run and pass game and put the ball in the right player’s hands at the right time.”

On which coaches will be on the sideline and information on Bowling Green

“Our coordinators will be up on the offense and defensive side of the ball. Offensively, Joey Halzle will be up as well. As far as full-time guys, defensively, most of our full-time guys on defense will be down on the sideline.

“Bowling Green, when you watch the video from a year ago, they’re a program that got a late start. There was some time off for them, getting them back. They only got a five-game schedule out of it. I think athletically you’ll see a different group this year than what you’ve seen from them because of time on task, strength and conditioning, being in better shape, being able to play harder for longer. Offensively, they are heavy 12 personnel. They have some athletic tight ends that can create matchups within the passing game. You’ve got to be able to be gapped out and handle the misdirection and the counter plays, you’ve got to be able to fit things extremely well. We need to play up the field and create some distortion and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage with our front, but you’ve got be able to handle the play action pass, too. Offensively, multiple in their fronts, four-down, 3-down. A mirage of coverages on the back end of it. They’ve had a couple of transfers that I assume are going to play for them – one on the secondary, one on the edge – that are solid football players. New coordinator, he was there a year ago as their corners coach I believe, but he will go back to (calling plays). I know he’s called plays at previous stops. It will be interesting to see how different they are on that side of the ball and we’ve got to be able to adjust. A big part of football games is, and you guys have seen it, special teams and penalties early in the season. We need to play penalty-free and our special teams has to do a great job of playing with great technique and understanding their assignment. All three phases have got to adjust. Week one you have to expect the unexpected and be ready to adjust and be able to communicate well from the sidelines.”

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On the team’s COVID situation

“I feel good about what we’re doing. Our vaccination rate is above 80% at this point. Our kids have been really good inside of the building and obviously, what we’ve had to do protocol wise has changed here during the course of training camp. Masks are now required in all of our meeting rooms. The kids have accepted it and have done a really good job with it.”

On how fall camp went, and how comfortable he is for Thursday

“I like a lot of things that we’ve seen on the practice field. As a coach, you’re never completely satisfied. Good football teams continue to grow every single week. Someone asked the question earlier about managing the practice load that you put on your players versus having them prepare for gameday and being physically healthy. You’ve got to balance those two things, but you’ve got to do good-on-good during the course of the week to continue to sharpen yourself. We do that when we’re in our helmet and shoulder pad practices during the course of the week. We’re at the point now where you have to go out and play. It isn’t going to be perfect. This is not a game of perfection at any position for 60 minutes. How we handle those adverse situations will be a huge part of how our season unfolds. We’ve talked a lot about that with our team. You try and create adverse situations and teaching moments to be able to talk about those things, but it’s time for us to go play. We’re going to see how we handle it on Thursday night.

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On how the linebacker group, Juwan Mitchell and Jeremy Banks have grown

“The group as a whole has continued to grow, but those two guys have grown a bunch. Jeremy, obviously not having any time on the field with our coaching staff after being banged up coming back from surgery in the spring (has grown). Juwan being new in June, getting in here and having to learn a defense (has also grown). Obviously, all of his experiences in the different defenses that he’s played transfer over, but the verbiage and terminology are different. Getting synchronized is really important. Both of those players in particular, play extremely hard. Their speed and their athleticism show up. Their effort and strain show up. The rest of that group does, as well. I have to just count the other guys that are in that. I think you’ll see multiple guys play at that position. Those two guys are going to play a lot of football and play at a really high level for us.”

On if he feels the team is healthy besides typical bumps and bruises

“We really are at this point. I really feel like pretty much everybody is going to be available. K’Rojhn (Calbert), with his injury early in training camp won’t be available, but pretty much everybody else is going to be ready to go roll on Thursday night. I’m excited to go see these guys compete. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”