Battle-Tested Vols Eager For Rivalry Game At Alabama

Transcript From Heupel Press Conference

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Despite a tough loss on Saturday night inside a packed Neyland Stadium, Tennessee was back to work on Monday with a huge opportunity on the horizon against No. 4 Alabama this weekend.

The Vols will look to bounce back as they travel to Tuscaloosa to take on their longtime rival on Saturday night at 7 p.m. on ESPN. UT is in the midst of a four-game stretch against ranked opponents and will attempt to snap a 14-game skid to the Crimson Tide.

"It's a huge opponent," head coach Josh Heupel said on Monday.

"They're a really good football team and it's a rivalry game—one that our guys and staff will be extremely excited about being ready for and going down to Tuscaloosa and competing against a really good football team."
One thing is for certain, this year's version of the Vols is going to battle for all 60 minutes and leave everything out on the field.

"I thought our guys competed extremely hard and played every second on the clock. They played it right up until the end," Heupel said when talking about last Saturday's game against Ole Miss. "There were some things that we obviously can do better in all three phases. We had to play smarter to finish on the right side of that but didn't do that. Those are things that for the most part we control."

If the Big Orange wish to spring the upset on Saturday, they'll need another solid performance from their consistently improving defense, who held the Rebels' high-scoring attack to just seven points in the second half on Saturday night.

"Fourth quarter, they did a fantastic job, and it speaks to their effort, strain and competitive spirit," Heupel said about his defense. "It speaks to their understanding of what we're doing. I think defensively, we continue to get better every single week."

The full transcript of Heupel's Monday press conference as well as select player quotes can be seen below.

Heupel Full Transcript

Opening statement…
"We had a good morning with our players. After reviewing the tape, some of what I thought after the game rang true. I thought our guys competed extremely hard and played every second on the clock. They played it right up until the end. There were some things that we obviously can do better in all three phases. We had to play smarter to finish on the right side of that but didn't do that. Those are things that for the most part we control. Offensively, it was some simple communication things. Defensively, we've got to get off the field on third down. I thought a lot of what they did at the line of scrimmage was really positive for most of the night. We didn't handle the quarterback draw. We had some different things that were in the game plan to help that. We just didn't execute it. In special teams, there were a lot of really good things, but a couple things—obviously the muffed punt and the penalty where we pushed the offense into a backed-up situation—those are the things that we've got to be better in. The good news for us is that we can control a lot of that. We've got to get better this week.

"It's a huge opponent. They're a really good football team and it's a rivalry game—one that our guys and staff will be extremely excited about being ready for and going down to Tuscaloosa and competing against a really good football team. It starts with their quarterback. He's a super-efficient playmaker. He's got dynamic playmakers around him. Defensively, obviously front to back, they're really good. They're athletic, have the ability to rush the passer. They can do that with pressures and can do that with just their front four. They've got good cover guys on the backend. It's a big test for us and one that we're excited about."

On Hendon Hooker's status...
"Hendon, Tiyon (Evans) and Cade (Mays) are probably day-to-day at this point. We'll see as the week unfolds where we end up with Hendon."

On if he thinks Hendon's injury is a long-term injury...
"I don't think it's a long-term injury. As for his status for this week, we'll find out as we go."

On his conversations with recruits about the atmosphere in Neyland Stadium Saturday…
"They're going to take away the 59 minutes, even with the slight delay. To see our student body rush down and fill the bottom part of the section and the remainder of our crowd to be amped up for the final minute of play, that's the takeaway. I know for some people the story is about what happened, but our administration has obviously made it clear that that's not the stance in what we want from the Volunteer spirit. You know that I feel the same way. That's a very small number. The passion and energy from our fanbase … I've been in a lot of competitive arenas as a player and as a coach. There was nothing better that I've ever been in than what happened on Saturday night."

On handling controversial plays and submitting them to the SEC…
"You turn those things in on Sunday."

On the play that appeared to result in a scoop and score for the Vols…
"Yeah, it looks like a delay, pop pass type play over the middle. You know, I think you guys all understand what my stance is on what actually transpired during the play. You know, two officials are chasing the ball into the end zone and the confer on the back end of it. It's one of those situations that is not reviewable, based on what they told me."

On how officials can get in better positions to spot the ball…
"Based on where the official is and where the play was, he was in a tough position. You know, the reality is that wherever that ball was spotted, that's probably, after review, where it was going to continue to be."

On expectations of the backup quarterback and how they prepare during the week…
"You prepare just like you are the starter. I don't care if you're the backup quarterback, the backup center, the backup d-tackle, the backup safety. You prepare like you are the starter. That's the tough thing about sports and the really tough thing about the quarterback position, because you never know when your opportunity is going to come, and you better be ready for it."

On Joe Milton's last play and not throwing it into end zone…
"Yeah, those are the things that we talk about. They actually see video of plays like that unfolding during the course of their off season. We try to put quarterbacks in a position where it is the last play, or a two-play set at the end of a game that's somewhere in that red zone situation. Our guys broke as though it was a scramble and busted out the right side. (Joe) has got to find a way at the end of the day to get that ball in the end zone, give somebody a chance."

On what Alabama does defensively to cause problems…
"First of all, they've got great personnel, it starts there. Their ability to be different, and I say that meaning apply pressure with pressure. Some of that being simulated with dropping ends, their ability to get pressure with their front four, their ability to fit the run game and play it at a really high level. You put all that together, they've been difficult to move the football on."

On why Alabama run defense is so successful…
"The ability to defeat blocks, first and second level. Linebackers are athletic, able to go and tackle well in space. Safeties do the same thing. They do it from different coverages, whether its single high or two high structure. You've got to do a great job of being really good on your double teams. When you have them, you got to do a great job of engaging your man. Getting to the second level is important too."

On Jabari Small's performance on Saturday…
"Thought for most of the football game, he did a great job of understanding our schemes, pressing the line of scrimmage. When he bounced, it was the right time to bounce. Did a great job of making people miss (at the) second and third levels there all night long. It was his best performance start to finish. The most football he's played at one time too. Toughness, grit, liked what he did a bunch."

On if it was difficult for Jabari (Small) to play a full game…
"You look at the running back position for us as a whole, we haven't had a lot of consistency where we've had the same guys on the field every single week and had the top two guys probably in Tiyon (Evans) and Jabari (Small) at the same time. It's been a little bit of a mash unit; guys are continuing to step up and go compete when given their opportunity."

On cleaning up pass protection…
"It's a little bit of everything. Some of it's wideouts. A bulk of it is our communication up front five guys, running back included. As you adjust protections based on different things that you're seeing during the course of the game, being able to go out and execute. That was an issue last week with a couple of things and end of the day, we've got to be cleaner."

On the way Hendon Hooker has settled into offense…
"I think his understanding of what we're doing. His preparation's been really good, so he's had the ability to grow each and every week. Playing with more confidence as he's gone through that. A part of that though, is the growth of the other guys around him too, that continue to get better. The other night there were some things that we did really well. When I say we need to play smarter for four quarters, each guy can't take his turn of being off one time. That just kills you in a game that's limited opportunities. So, for Hendon, he's going to continue to grow. Believe that he prepares in a great way. His teammates care about him, his teammates believe in him, and that's been a big part of why he's been able to grow too."

On how Dayne Davis played when stepping in for Cade Mays on Saturday…
"Some really positive things, couple of things in protection that weren't as clean as they need to be as we adjusted things during the course of the ballgame. I believe in Dayne, believe in his preparation and if Cade (Mays) is not able to go this week, I feel like he'll be ready to play at a high level."

On Ole Miss QB Matt Corral causing problems for UT's third down defense…
"Great players at some point make good plays. I thought we did a great job of harassing (Ole Miss QB Matt Corral) all night long. We got the one pick but were close to a bunch of other things. Got a strip-sack, and they were able to get back on the ball, had the play that we talked about previously, and were close a couple of other picks. I thought our effort, being relentless and continuing to play each play, showed as the game went on. There are some things structurally that we can control to take away some of those opportunities. He is a really good player though."

On how the players can still stay bought in when the injuries start to pile up and other things might not go their way…
"I just believe in the competitive spirit inside of our building. I believe what we're building, the effort and strain that they're playing with; the other night wasn't perfect, but at no point did you ever question the effort and the 'want-to.' I believe in who those guys are and as you build a program, that's the first place that it starts."

On the defense getting better as the game went on despite lack of depth in numbers…
"When you're thin or not as deep as you may want to be, just based on pure numbers as we started the season, their ability to get better as the game went on and get comfortable within the game. Fourth quarter, they did a fantastic job, and it speaks to their effort, strain, and competitive spirit. It speaks to their understanding of what we're doing. I think defensively, we continue to get better every single week."

On how the team can get better in practice while managing fatigue through the back half of the season…
"I think our players, by the time we get to game day, feel fresh and ready to go compete. Good teams, good players have to continue to get better. We're going to continue to give practice squad looks. We're going to continue to go good-on-good here. For us, it's a one-week season this week, and then bye week, you have to make sure that you get guys' legs back underneath them and make sure they're ready for the final run."
 

Player Quotes

Matthew Butler – DL – Senior

On shutting down Brian Robinson Jr…

"Yeah I've seen him on film. Obviously, a good back in our league. We pride ourselves on trying to stop opposing teams' running backs and we're going to treat it the same going there. Have your fits, get a lot of knock-back up front and fill all the fits from the backer positions, then from the STAR and corner spots, outmost contain. We can't treat it any differently. It's not really about doing anything special or anything extraordinary. It's just doing the ordinary things at a very, very high level consistently over and over again. Not once in the fourth, once in the third, second, and first quarter, all throughout the game. And then, minimizing your mistakes. That's the main thing with any running back, any offense, no matter what."

On the fumble touchdown taken away…
"I'll just be honest, I presumed it was a trick play. I had movement, I thought it was a trick play, maybe a statue of liberty or something like that, wasn't sure. So, I was just trying to wrestle him to the ground. I was clawing after the ball, I believe Tyler Baron got it out. I thought the play was (a touchdown), but there's different rules and different, maybe, interpretations of those rules. You take it and you play with it. Obviously, that could have been a game changing play for us. But at the same time, there are probably 10, 12, maybe 15 other game-changing plays that could have happened that we have to take advantage of, or even if we did them well, just be better at. You just play through those things."

On how proud he is of Omari Thomas and the defensive line's growth…
"Yeah, I mean that's great to see … I'm very glad to see continued progression in our room. You know Omari Thomas, he got more snaps obviously, but maybe not like a ton. He made very, very good production out of the snaps that he played. So that's great to see, and as snaps go up obviously you want to see that same production. So, super proud of him, I mean that's my guy, all of them are my guys. So, I felt like as a D-Line unit we stepped up to the plate in a lot of ways. But, at the end of the year we want to be an elite unit so we have more steps to take. Continuing to be the anchor of the defense, you know as they say, it all starts up front. Just continuing to push this defense to be an elite unit and that starts with us being an elite subunit as a D-Line. That's what we're striving for and we are trying to take steps in that direction."


Jerome Carvin – OL – Senior

On giving up 11 sacks in the last two games…
 "Yeah, a lot of it is missed assignments, a lot of it is just scheme. Wouldn't necessarily say it's like people getting beat or just effort or strength. It's just like, just part of the game. Definitely going to get fixed, definitely has to get fixed, and it will."

On calling protections at the line of scrimmage…
"It's really my call. I declare the protection, first make sure everyone hears it, everyone's on the same page. After that it's all about eyes, tracking your man, tracking the guys you're working to and with, as well. After you get the call, you have to be mentally locked in because things could be flying everywhere, and you still have to be locked in."

On keeping a strong mentality…
"It's all about answering the challenge. That's what we come here to do. It's the SEC, that's what we came here for, you play tough opponents. These next guys are ranked opponents and they're very good. So, it's all about answering, it's all about competing, it's all about just playing together, being mentally focused, playing hard together and just having each other's back.  Our mentality it still the same, we want to win these ball games and that's what we're going to do, so. We've got to go in really mentally focused and locked in."


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