Vols 'expecting,' not 'believing' in Heupel's second season

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee redshirt sophomore running back Len'Neth Whitehead will miss the 2022 season after undergoing surgery for a recent upper-body injury, second-year coach Josh Heupel announced Sunday. The Volunteers open preseason camp Monday morning.

The distinction has been made.

When it comes to the 2022 football season, the Tennessee Volunteers will be "expecting" and not "believing." Tennessee will hold its first preseason practice Monday morning, which also will serve as the one-month mark before the Sept. 1 opener against Ball State inside Neyland Stadium.

"There is a big difference in teams that believe and teams that expect," Vols second-year coach Josh Heupel said Sunday afternoon in a news conference. "We've got to continue to work in a way that we expect to win every Saturday when we get to the fall, and I think there is greater trust and understanding. A year ago at this time, none of our players and a good portion of our staff had never been through a training camp together. What does it look like day to day? How do we handle the situations that inevitably are going to come up?

"That transpired through the course of the season, too, because that was the first time we had gone through that. Now, for 80% of our roster and almost our entire staff, they've all been through it, so there is great trust and belief in what we're doing and clear lines of communication. They understand the standards and expectations. The energy and the focus is so different than it was a year ago, and it should be that way."

Tennessee was scrambling this time last year as Heupel was trying to make up ground after a late-January hiring that followed the implosion of the Jeremy Pruitt era. The Vols were picked to finish fifth in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division but wound up third, posting a 4-4 league record and a 7-5 overall mark before a Music City Bowl loss to Purdue.

Heupel said the Vols are in a "really healthy situation" from an injury standpoint, but they will be without redshirt sophomore running back Len'Neth Whitehead, who recently suffered an upper-body injury that required surgery. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder from Athens, Georgia, played in eight of 13 games last season, rushing 32 times for 207 yards (6.5 per carry) and two touchdowns.

Whitehead did not have a single lost-yardage carry, and his absence leaves Tennessee beginning camp with the top tandem of Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright and with freshmen Justin Williams and Dylan Sampson.

"I think Jabari has changed his body in so many ways and is about as focused as I've seen him since we've been here," second-year offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said. "It's so different when you go into a year knowing you will be counted on. I don't think Jabari was super confident last year, but he's 210-plus pounds now.

"Jaylen Wright has changed his body, too, and it's been so awesome to see his growth. He had a tough time coming in and rolling early, because a lot of things hit him in the face, but he is a different young guy right now."

Golesh added that Williams and Sampson will be given opportunities to run behind the first-team line but that early playing time would depend on their pass protection.

Second-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks explained being more confident than comfortable entering Monday's start.

"We have a lot of work to do," Banks said. "We're definitely excited just with the number of student-athletes we have in our program at this point. When we first got here, we were obviously struggling with that.

"We feel like we have more scholarship bodies, and obviously it's our job to figure out what they can do and put those guys in the best possible position."

Tackle competition

Golesh said left tackle is a huge question mark.

"Moving Darnell (Wright) over to right kind of solidifies that side of it, and you feel pretty good," he said. "Then we'll let Dayne (Davis) and Gerald (Mincey) and JJ (Crawford) figure out who can play at left and who the second guy is. We went through spring feeling pretty good, and just as important as who starts out there is who the third and fourth guys will be.

"Last year, we got to the third and fourth pretty quick. You hope you don't, but you have to have a third and fourth and even a fifth in figuring out the depth there. Whoever it is on the left side hasn't played a lot of football."

Corner for now

Sophomore Christian Charles was arguably the biggest star of the spring after moving out from safety to cornerback and performing well. So well, in fact, that he is staying put.

"I think he'll primarily start off at corner with the understanding that he has the ability to move back inside," Banks said. "He's the poster child for what we're looking for - guys who are very interchangeable. He'll get an opportunity to win one of those jobs at corner, and he'll also get a chance to win one of the jobs at safety, but the way we left spring is the way we'll start it."

Believing in Banks

Fifth-year senior linebacker Jeremy Banks led the Vols with 128 tackles last season and has received some All-SEC hype this summer.

"He's tough, and he has all the traits that you look for from a linebacker perspective," Tim Banks said. "I thought he was scratching the surface of how good he could be last year, and I think he's worked hard to shore up some things that we identified as liabilities.

"If he continues to work at the things we've talked about, there is no reason to think he shouldn't be one of the better linebackers in this conference, if not the country."

Odds and ends

Heupel said Southern California transfer receiver Bru McCoy will be "involved in everything that we're doing" until his eligibility is solidified. ... When asked about return-game possibilities, Heupel singled out junior-college transfer Dee Williams and freshmen Squirrel White and Sampson as having tracking skills and the ability to make explosive plays.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.