Heupel, Vols eager to finish successful regular season

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee defensive linemen Da'Jon Terry (95) and Ja'Quain Blakely (48) wrap up South Alabama quarterback Desmond Trotter last Saturday night in Neyland Stadium. Blakely will play his final home game for the Volunteers this weekend against Vanderbilt.

Football fans of the Tennessee Volunteers have been dreaming of the good ol' days for several seasons now.

Awaiting a postseason destination as 31-point favorites over Vanderbilt does have a little reminiscent feel to it.

Tennessee earned bowl eligibility with Saturday night's 60-14 shellacking of South Alabama, but the Vols are looking to improve their 6-5 mark to 7-5 against a Commodores program that has suffered 20 consecutive Southeastern Conference defeats. The Vols are responsible for two of those 20, thumping Vandy 28-10 two years ago in Neyland Stadium and 42-17 last season in Nashville.

The Commodores have been overwhelmed more often than not in Clark Lea's first season, succumbing 62-0 to Georgia, 42-0 to Florida and 45-6 to Mississippi State, but they played one of their more respectable games this past weekend in a 31-17 loss at Ole Miss.

"I think they've continued to get better throughout the course of the season," Vols first-year coach Josh Heupel said Monday. "Last week, they had the opportunity to turn that into a one-possession game late in the football game but weren't able to convert in the red zone. Their quarterback having the ability to run is a big part of their game and something we've got to do a good job against this week."

A pair of sophomores led Vanderbilt's attack in Oxford, with quarterback Mike Wright completing 22 of 44 passes for 241 yards with an interception and also rushing 13 times for 61 yards. The Commodores were led on the ground by Rocko Griffin's 26 carries for 117 yards and a touchdown.

Tennessee's convincing wins the past two seasons against Vanderbilt followed a three-year run in which the Commodores prevailed by double digits, including a 38-13 romp in 2018. Heupel didn't have anything to do with those results, and his focus will be trying to top the recent ravaging of the Jaguars.

"This is the end of the regular season," he said, "and we're going to finish it."

Saturday is also Senior Day, as the Vols will play for an eighth and final time this season in Neyland. Several seniors have eligibility remaining due to the added year the NCAA provided due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, but it's the last home game for sixth-year receiver Velus Jones Jr. and fifth-year defensive lineman Ja'Quain Blakely.

"I'll probably be a little sad as far as the emotions and stuff like that," Jones said Monday. "I love this football team, and I love this university. I'm surrounded by great people with this staff and everybody that has anything to do with Tennessee football. If I was to drop a tear, they would be tears of joy."

Said Blakely: "It will be a bittersweet moment, but at the end of the day, it's still a game we've got to play."

Tennessee's seniors who joined the final signing class of Butch Jones in 2017 are just 26-32 during their time in Knoxville, while those who signed in Jeremy Pruitt's inaugural class a year later are 22-24. They are certainly special in the eyes of Heupel, who appreciates them for what they've experienced and what they've become.

"All the uncertainty of last offseason in December and January to a new coaching staff arriving to buying in and a lot of them being great leaders inside of our program - they've been instrumental in how we've grown," Heupel said. "They faced adversity and stepped right through the fire."

Heupel said Thanksgiving week is among his favorites of the year, because it blends family and football. He added that some players will be able to go home Thursday for a Thanksgiving meal but that those who live further away will either eat at his house or at an assistant coach's house.

Josephs commits

Tennessee picked up its first commitment since the start of the season Monday night, receiving a nonbinding pledge from edge rusher Joshua Josephs of North Cobb High in the Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw. The 6-3, 215-pounder is the nation's No. 31 edge rusher and the No. 505 prospect overall on the 247Sports.com composite rankings.

The Vols have 15 commitments for the 2022 signing cycle and are 27th on the 247Sports team rankings.

A delayed return

Fifth-year senior offensive lineman K'Rojhn Calbert, a 6-foot-5, 325-pounder from McMinnville, made his season debut against South Alabama after suffering a biceps injury early in preseason camp.

"He's been banged up a bunch throughout the course of his career, and this season was cut short early," Heupel said. "He fought, and he got himself in a position to get back on the field. It was awesome to see him get an opportunity to play."

Who is that QB?

When Tennessee got the ball back for the final 2:43 of last weekend's game, Gaston Moore entered at quarterback. The 6-2, 200-pound redshirt freshman from Hilton Head began his career with Heupel at Central Florida.

"He's a young man who walked on and has continued to grow in his understanding of what we're doing offensively," Heupel said. "He's smart and competitive, and he does a really good job inside of the room, too. He's a young guy who doesn't always get all of the reps that you want, but he's been diligent in continuing to grow.

"His footwork and eye-discipline are better, and it was good exposure for him to get in the game the other night."

Moore's one game at quarterback this season matched that of Harrison Bailey, who started the final three contests last season for the Vols but entered the NCAA transfer portal last month.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.