Heupel, Vols confident moving forward with foundation set

Tennessee Athletics photo / Quarterbacks Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton III celebrate with quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle following Tennessee's 31-14 win over Clemson in last December's Orange Bowl. While Hooker is now with the Detroit Lions, Milton is back along with Halzle, who is now offensive coordinator.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Quarterbacks Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton III celebrate with quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle following Tennessee's 31-14 win over Clemson in last December's Orange Bowl. While Hooker is now with the Detroit Lions, Milton is back along with Halzle, who is now offensive coordinator.

The 2023 Tennessee Volunteers will be as familiar with head football coach Josh Heupel and his staff as the 2021 Vols were unfamiliar with what was then a brand new regime.

Last season's run to an 11-2 record and an Orange Bowl triumph over Clemson certainly resulted in a pleasant offseason in Knoxville, and there is no lack for optimism as Tennessee begins to eye its Sept. 2 opener against Virginia in Nashville's Nissan Stadium. Tuesday was preseason media day in Knoxville, with the first practice of Heupel's third August with the Vols set for Wednesday morning.

"The cornerstone pieces of who we are and the foundation has been set," Heupel said in a news conference. "There is great trust and accountability inside of our walls with our players and their daily habits and who they are and what they're about. They compete individually with themselves and collectively as a group, too.

"We've come a long way in a short amount of time. That first fall we had 65 scholarship players, and we're close to 85 now. We've got real depth and real competition really at every position."

Heupel began his 25-minute gathering by referring to this as the "best time of year."

Familiarity is coming in many forms for Tennessee, beginning with more than 30 scholarship seniors but also containing 18 freshmen who went through spring practice. There is a coaching staff that has but one new position coach, with Alec Abeln having been elevated to guide the tight ends after spending last season as an offensive analyst.

There has not been a change on the defensive side since Heupel completed his first staff in March 2021.

"There is a lot of turnover every year in the collegiate game, and obviously in the pros as well," third-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "From a football perspective, I think it's awesome, but to be honest, I think it's awesome just in recruiting. You get to recruit these kids and see them start to develop and start to grow, not just as players but as men.

"I don't know if there is anything more gratifying than that, and being able to have continuity in what we call home -- Knoxville has been really good to me and my wife -- is truly a blessing."

Tennessee returns six starters on both sides of the ball and brings back a lot of players with experience from a team that won seven of its 11 games by more than 25 points. Last season's defense had dominating performances against LSU and Kentucky but was humiliated at South Carolina before regrouping to close strong against Vanderbilt and Clemson.

"For us, personally, we realize what we did last year was last year," Banks said, "and at this point, we're continuing to chop wood and carry water, so to speak, to get ready for this upcoming season. From a confidence perspective, what we've done so far is great, but I've told our kids that experience is only good when you can go back and learn from it.

"We can't carry over any tackles or any interceptions. We've got to earn what we can during this camp, and that's obviously the goal. When we got here, I don't think our room had a lot of confidence, but I think they're confident now in terms of what they can bring to the table."

Tennessee's offense has plenty of reasons for confidence as well, despite losing coordinator Alex Golesh to the head-coaching vacancy at South Florida, quarterback Hendon Hooker to the Detroit Lions and receiver Jalin Hyatt to the New York Giants. Hooker was in the Heisman Trophy chase until tearing his ACL at South Carolina, while Hyatt became the program's first Biletnikoff Award recipient.

Joey Halzle replaced Golesh as the play-caller for the Orange Bowl and was then elevated to offensive coordinator, while Joe Milton III stepped up in Hooker's absence. In the bowl game, Milton distributed passes to Ramel Keyton, Bru McCoy and Squirrel White -- a group that could serve as a stellar receiving trio in the months ahead.

Halzle said that running the meetings and making sure every position group understands what is going on is the biggest difference from simply overseeing the quarterbacks the past two seasons, but he is loving what he is seeing out of Milton.

"His attention to detail is elite," Halzle said. "He came back after that Clemson game and was hungry to keep learning and keep pushing forward. He didn't rest on his laurels. He saw the success that he had, and he knows what his talent can do."

"He's consuming the game at all times, and it's fun to be a part of. It's a special mindset that kid has."

The potential for another special season is there for the Vols, who could have an experience edge in most of the games they play.

"It's different in that we've got two years of experience with a majority of our roster," Heupel said. "We've got a culture that has been built and some continuity. Our players know exactly what they're getting into in each phase of our offseason, so they know what this training camp is going to look like."

Confidence in Nico

Hooker successfully replaced an injured Milton less than two full games into the 2021 season.

If Milton got hurt early this season, the Vols would turn to five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava.

"I have huge confidence in him," Halzle said. "That guy is mature beyond his years. He didn't come in like a true freshman. He came in wanting to learn and not like he was any kind of highly rated recruit. He came in wanting to know, and he just has a calmness and a demeanor that the guys believe in if he's called upon to do a job."

Garland out for year

Fifth-year senior linebacker Kwauze "Pakk" Garland will not play this season.

"He hasn't gotten himself in position to where he's cleared," Heupel said. "It's not because he hasn't been putting in the work. It's just him and the process he's having to go through with that injury. He'll be a part of our program but will not be playing this fall."

The 6-foot-2, 226-pounder from the Atlanta suburb of Conyers suffered an upper-body injury in last season's opener against Ball State. He has played in 18 career games and would have another year of eligibility in 2024.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.