Clemson on prepping for Vols’ tempo: ‘We did the best that we could’

Clemson Athletics photo / Clemson fifth-year senior defensive end K.J. Henry said the Tigers tried to simulate Tennessee’s up-tempo offense as well as they could have in the limited time they had.

DANIA BEACH, Fla. — Tennessee's 12 regular-season opponents had the opportunity to dedicate preparation time to Josh Heupel's up-tempo offense during spring practice, preseason camp and the week of facing the Volunteers.

Not so for Clemson, as the Tigers were dealt just a handful of workouts leading up to Friday night's Orange Bowl.

"We did the best that we could, but I know we didn't get it right," Clemson fifth-year senior defensive end K.J. Henry said Wednesday, "and that's no knock on our guys but just a testament to how fast Tennessee is moving and the great job that they do. It has suited them well as far as the success they've had this year and the points they've been able to put up every single game."

The Tigers were plenty impressive defensively during their 39-10 thumping of North Carolina earlier this month in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, but the fastest team they've played this season, Wake Forest, gave them problems.

Clemson survived a 51-45 thriller in double overtime on Sept. 24 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where Wake Forest racked up 447 yards and 28 first downs. Tigers first-year defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin was asked how Tennessee's tempo compared to the Demon Deacons and quickly said the Vols are in a league of their own.

"That first practice after the break, we smoked our guys pretty good," Goodwin said. "You're trying to create an unrealistic stress to where things are a little easier by the time you get to game day, but it's obviously going to be a huge, huge challenge. There is nobody better at tempo than Tennessee.

"There is no celebration after a play. You've got to look over and get the call and get lined up and go again."

Tennessee's tempo will provide different challenges at the various defensive levels, according to Tigers players.

"As a linebacker, I've got to relay the call to a defense, and I've got to make sure we're keyed in," sophomore Jeremiah Trotter said. "After a play, I'm having to run back while looking to the sideline to get another call and to get everybody set again. Communicating is such a big part of trying to stop high-tempo offenses like this."

Said senior defensive tackle Tyler Davis: "I feel like I'm a pretty in-shape guy, but it's very important that I keep my wind up."

Missing out

Henry is excited about Friday's showdown but bummed that he won't be facing longtime friend Hendon Hooker, the Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback who was lost for the season with an ACL tear Nov. 19 at South Carolina.

"He's a great friend of mine who had a great year," Henry said. "I'm from Winston-Salem and he's from Greensboro, and they're about 25 minutes from each other. I'm old, but he's really old. Being athletes in the same area and competing with and against each other, and then each of us went to the ACC — sports have just always kept us close. Our families are close in that nature, and it's always kind of just kept us tied together to this point.

"Now our teams get to compete one more time."

Hooker began his collegiate career at Virginia Tech before transferring to Tennessee in January 2021.

  photo  Tennessee Athletics photo / Former Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning speaks with injured Volunteers quarterback Hendon Hooker during an Orange Bowl practice this week.

Animal collection

Who knew this would be the year of the stuffed animal for Vols junior right guard Javontez Spraggins?

The 6-foot-3, 325-pounder from East St. Louis, Illinois, was handed a stuffed alligator by a fan after Tennessee's 38-33 win over Florida on Sept. 24, which began his unique postgame ritual of parading around with a mascot of the team the Vols had just conquered. He wound up with quite the collection.

"I had a variety of stuffed animals that grew over the season," a smiling Spraggins said. "The fans have been incredible and have supported me as the so-called 'Zookeeper.' A lot of those things are with my mom back home, but a few of them are actually with me at Tennessee.

"I even got a stuffed Commodore, but I can't remember if I gave that to my mom or kept it at home."

The most memorable exchange occurred following Tennessee's 40-13 win at LSU on Oct. 8.

"I actually didn't get to keep the LSU Tiger, because they said it belonged to a fan," Spraggins said. "I was about to take it into the locker room, but Smokey grabbed it out of my hand and said, 'That belongs to a fan.' It was crazy."

Heupel's eyes

With Alex Golesh now the former Tennessee offensive coordinator and the new South Florida head coach, Vols quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle will have an enhanced role Friday. Halzle has been with Heupel at every previous stop: Oklahoma, Utah State, Missouri and UCF.

"I've been with Coach Heup for years, and I've been his eyes for years, so that part is not changing," Halzle said. "I'll have more of a communicative aspect to it as far as, 'This is what we need to be getting to. This is what we need to be looking at.'

"Not to diminish what Coach Golesh did, because he did a great job, but I think it will be a fluid transition because we've been together for so long."

Emotional career

Bryan Bresee was the nation's top signee in the 2020 class, but the 6-5, 305-pound redshirt sophomore defensive tackle has encountered unfathomable obstacles during his time at Clemson.

Bresee's sophomore season didn't last four full games due to a torn left ACL, and he missed time this season with strep throat. Yet the biggest setback occurred this past September, when he lost his 15-year-old sister, Ella, to brain cancer.

"It's been devastating just seeing him having to go through that," Goodwin said. "We hurt for him, because Clemson is such a close-knit family, and watching him struggle and having to go through that has been a huge, huge challenge. It took an emotional toll on our team.

"Those few weeks were emotionally draining for everyone, but he is a special young man who has persevered and honored his sister and family. He just had his best semester academically with the most challenges he's ever had to face."

Traditional look

Tennessee announced Wednesday that it will wear its traditional home look of orange jerseys with white pants and white helmets. The Vols were 4-0 during the regular season in that combination, which included their wins over Florida and Alabama.

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