Dan Fleser: LSU Gearing Up For Vols' Fast-Paced Offense; Cedric Tillman Status Still Undecided

  • Thursday, October 6, 2022
  • Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

Having not played in five years isn’t the biggest reason why introductions are in order when Tennessee and LSU meet on Saturday.

 

A more compelling incentive is both football programs now are under the stewardship of new coaches. The Tigers are beginning a new era with first-year coach Brian Kelly. The Tigers (4-1) have won four in a row (2-0 SEC) and have returned to the national rankings at No.

25. They overcame a 17-point deficit to win at Auburn last Saturday.

 

“It’s pretty clear this team plays with great heart, and they’ll fight,” Kelly said.

 

In the next breath, Kelly added: “But heart and fight will not win against the opponents that we’re going to have over the next month or so. We’re going to have to have better execution. We’re going to have to coach better.”

 

For starters, Kelly was referring to Tennessee, which has been fast-tracking its evolution under second-year coach Josh Heupel. The Vols are 4-0 and have risen to No. 8 in the Associated Press’ weekly top 25 rankings. The pace of their progress is reflected by the speed in which their prolific offense runs plays. UT - which is averaging a nation’s-best 559.3 yards and 365.8 passing yards per game this season – is averaging a nation’s-best 2.99 plays per minute in Heupel’s two seasons. The correlation has become obvious.

 

Kelly has been a quick study on Tennessee’s pace. His initial coaching response seemingly will draw upon the competitiveness he referenced more than anything else.

 

“So, to play fast allows you a pretty clean look at what you are getting, but on the other side, you can’t do a lot defensively,” he said. “But what you can do is get your cleats in the ground, line up, play fast, play free and play physical.”

 

In other words, beat a path to Hendon Hooker.

 

Tennessee’s rapid progress also has correlated with the redshirt senior quarterback’s ascension into the Heisman Trophy conversation. He’s coming off a command performance against Florida, accounting for a career-best 461 yards of total offense and three touchdowns.

 

 “That guy puts in more time and preparation than anyone I’ve ever been around and you’re seeing all of that pay off,” UT quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle said on Tuesday. “It didn’t start in-season, it started in January. When he decided to come back, he was making an effort to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country. Right now, that’s what you’re seeing, is the fruit of that labor.”

 

In the 38-33 victory over the Gators, Hooker ran 13 times for 112 yards and a score. He also took at least one hit that called into question his playing status. He’ll run into the possibility of that kind of punishment against the Tigers.

 

“We’ve always discussed being intelligent as far as taking care of yourself,” Halzle said. “We talked about it a bunch with him. We talked about it in pregame, talked about it leading up to it, talked about it on the sidelines, but at the end of the day, Hendon is one of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever been around. You can’t take that away from the guy either. He is intelligent about the way he carries himself. Maybe there are some times when he could’ve protected himself, but there’s also plays that he makes where if he’s just trying to protect himself, he doesn’t make those plays.”

 

In other news:

 

-Heupel said Thursday that wide receiver Cedric Tillman’s playing status for LSU will be determined Friday by the UT’s medical staff and Tillman. The redshirt senior missed the Florida game with an ankle injury. 

            

* * *

 

Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

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