Vols out to finish games in Heupel's second season

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP / Tennessee coach Josh Heupel spoke Thursday as the annual SEC media days drew to a close in Atlanta's College Football Hall of Fame.

ATLANTA - This time last year, Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel already had been stressing the need "to become as good as we could as fast as we can."

Turning the 3-7 collapse of Jeremy Pruitt's final season in 2020 to last year's 7-6 record that included a Music City Bowl appearance definitely reflects accomplishment on that front to an impressive degree, so what now? Is year two of the Heupel era about staying power?

Certainly no mantras that could involve bricks, right?

"One of the things we've been stressing is the ability to finish," Heupel said as SEC media days wrapped up inside the College Football Hall of Fame. "That comes from a lot of different things. It comes from how you live your daily life, your ability to finish a rep inside your strength and conditioning program, and it comes in how you finish a semester academically. I'm really proud of what we're doing.

"A year ago we had four or five games that we had an opportunity to win in the fourth quarter, and we didn't end up on the right side of that. Finishing the right way I think is something we've taken a great stride in during our offseason. It's been purposeful in who we are every single day."

So "finishing" it is.

Tennessee certainly had no problems starting last season, racing past opponents by a staggering 191-50 during the first quarters of games. The Volunteers topped the nation with 14.7 first quarter points per contest and even led Alabama and Georgia entering the second 15 minutes, but sustaining that pace became another matter.

Heupel and his player representatives said Thursday that much delving into last season to address that issue has occurred.

"You've got to be able to watch and not be too prideful to look at yourself making mistakes," safety Trevon Flowers said. "You can't just ignore it and be too prideful. We've sat back and watched all the good, bad and ugly, and now it's about the next step. We've looked in the mirror, and we know our strengths and weaknesses more than anybody."

Said quarterback Hendon Hooker: "It's just paying attention to detail, and that's something we've been trying to preach this whole summer. That can be in the weight room, the field or the classroom. We're making sure we're accountable, because things off the field translate to things on the field."

Heupel expressed pride in what the Vols accomplished last season, as well as the possibilities for the months ahead, and if Heupel the Tennessee coach could match Heupel the former Oklahoma quarterback, Vols fans could be on the verge of a lot of excitement.

The Sooners were a woeful 17-27-1 from 1995-98, but the combination of coach Bob Stoops and Heupel under center resulted in a 7-5 record in 1999 and a 13-0 run to the 2000 national championship.

"For myself, embarking on the challenge that we did 18 months ago at Tennessee and rebuilding an iconic, historic program, I was able to look back at my playing career," Heupel said. "It was a program that hadn't been to a bowl game for several straight years before we got there, and we obviously had a great amount of success.

'What were the footprints and the strongholds you had to have inside of your program to grow? I certainly look back on my playing career from a global view."

Golf and mustard

Since Tennessee's 31-26 loss to visiting Ole Miss last October, Rebels coach Lane Kiffin has admitted to signing lots of mustard bottles and golf balls following the debris that rained down inside Neyland Stadium during the waning moments.

Heupel has not experienced such requests.

"I didn't sign any mustard bottles or golf balls," he said. "I maybe wish I had a golf ball that night, you know what I mean? I'm only kidding.

"It was a great, competitive atmosphere. The energy and electricity inside of that stadium for 59 minutes - man, it was special."

Balancing act

Heupel was asked Thursday if he ever experiences internal conflicts as the head coach and the play-caller and whether the play-caller in him was the bolder of the two.

"I try to wear the head coach hat in all of those moments," he said. "I think you're always constantly balancing what's best for the football team in situational football."

Odds and ends

Heupel said that former five-star receiver Bru McCoy still has "another hurdle" to clear before attaining eligibility following his transfer from Southern California. Tennessee had 69 scholarship players at the start of last season, according to Heupel, who said that the team would still be under the 85 allotted this year. When asked which three teams Tennessee should play if the league adopts the nine-game scheduling model, Heupel mentioned Alabama, Vanderbilt and Kentucky before adding Georgia as another that would make sense.

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