Even-keeled Heupel has enhanced Vols from the start

Tennessee Athletics photo by Kate Luffman / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel lets out some emotion after Chase McGrath’s 40-yard field goal propelled the Volunteers to a 52-49 win over Alabama last Saturday night.

With 15 seconds remaining in last Saturday's titanic football showdown between Alabama and Tennessee, most of the 101,915 spectators in Neyland Stadium were delirious after Will Reichard's miss of a 50-yard field goal left the game deadlocked at 49-49.

Not Josh Heupel.

The second-year Volunteers coach had work to perform and little time to perform it.

"You practice those things in training camp — how you want to function and operate in a lot of different scenarios," Heupel said this week in a news conference. "It's impossible to give guys those scenarios every week, but I love the fact that our kids understood what we were trying to accomplish. From our wideouts to our quarterback to our protection up front, we had to be able to go out and execute in that situation, and the fact we still had timeouts left was critical.

"It was a big-time performance by those guys at the end of the football game."

(READ MORE: Is the sudden success of the Vols this season hurting UTC?)

Tennessee took over at its 32-yard line and needed six seconds to reach midfield on an 18-yard pass from Hendon Hooker to Ramel Keyton. Following a timeout by the Vols, Hooker connected with Bru McCoy for a 27-yard gain to the Alabama 23 with two seconds remaining.

The Vols called time out, the Crimson Tide called time out, and then Chase McGrath kicked a 40-yard field goal to give Tennessee a 52-49 victory and snap Alabama's 15-game series winning streak. If the late and legendary Tennessee broadcaster John Ward had witnessed the moment, he might have recycled his memorable exclamation from the 1998 win over Florida: "Pandemonium reigns!"

Yet not until McGrath's kick was signaled a success by the officials did the stoic Heupel allow himself to share in the electric experience.

"Coach Heupel does a good job of keeping his composure," Vols junior running back Jabari Small said. "He has like a natural poker face, so it's kind of hard to read. He's always thinking about the next play until the clock hits zero."

Heupel's steadiness was appreciated during his first few weeks and months in 2021, when he inherited a program that had imploded under predecessor Jeremy Pruitt and had been investigated by both the university and the NCAA. The even-keeled nature of the former Oklahoma quarterback who guided the Sooners to the 2000 season's national championship is even more appreciated now, as his Vols have ascended to No. 3 in the Associated Press poll with their 6-0 record that includes four triumphs over ranked teams.

The 38-33 conquest of Florida and last weekend's win were televised by CBS and accompanied by ESPN's "College GameDay" show, but that attention was handled by Heupel's Vols just as they handled their opponents.

"My dad was a lot more emotional than I am on the sideline, and that might be because he's a defensive guy by nature," Heupel said. "Having played quarterback and having been in a lot of different positions and understanding them — I think your players are going to feed off of you way more than they listen to you.

"They feed off of your body language and your energy that you give off, so I try to be consistent and calm in those situations, hopefully keeping them calm in the storm, too."

That was certainly the case with 15 seconds remaining against the Tide.

"You immediately have to transition," Heupel said. "They make that field goal, and you're flipping to a different scenario, and you've got to go play that out and execute it. They missed it, so you think about where we're at, the time allotted, the timeouts left and how do we get two chunks and get ourselves into field-goal range?

"You flip the script, and your players have to do that as well."

Tennessee has certainly flipped the script in terms of its football fortunes, jumping out to its best start since the 1998 national championship run. The Vols are doing so with a coach who is entering just his 20th game in the program but has proven to be quite calm and collected.

"Coach Heup is business, but he is definitely competitive," sixth-year senior tight end Princeton Fant said. "It's what really just changed this team. He wants to win, and we want to win."

Wright direction

Tennessee backup running back Jaylen Wright continues to lead starter Small in rushing yards (386 to 364) this season and is coming off a 12-carry, 71-yard performance (5.9 per carry) against Alabama.

"Last week was his best week of running the football — his pad level, running his feet on contact," Heupel said Thursday. "I think he's gotten more comfortable and has a better understanding of what we're doing offensively. He's shown the ability to be slow to the hole and then accelerate, and he's shown the ability to use his blockers in front of him."

'Security guards'

The offensive line's success midway through the season can be reflected by 203.2 rushing yards per game and by allowing just 41 yards lost in sacks.

"I call them my security guards," Hooker said. "We've got front door and back door security guards, and they make sure the perimeter is secure. They push through a lot, whether that's me getting on them or them being hard on themselves.

"I can't thank them enough."

Odds and ends

Heupel did not provide updates for safety Jaylen McCollough, who is facing a felony aggravated assault charge, or the injured likes of receiver Cedric Tillman and cornerbacks Christian Charles and Kamal Hadden. ... Heupel on using the strong-armed Joe Milton to throw the final pass of the first half from Tennessee's 46-yard line: "That was a little bit spur of the moment, but it was something we had talked about earlier in the year. The opportunity presented itself at that point."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.