Hargis: Heupel’s trust in Vols shows with early message to be aggressive

AP photo by George Walker IV / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel opened his third season leading the Vols with a bold offensive call on fourth down early in Saturday's game against Virginia.
AP photo by George Walker IV / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel opened his third season leading the Vols with a bold offensive call on fourth down early in Saturday's game against Virginia.

NASHVILLE — Talk about an instant message. On the season's opening drive, University of Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel wanted to send his team the clear signal that he believed in their ability to make a play.

Because of that belief, he instilled an early tone that this version of the Volunteers will be aggressive.

After gashing the Virginia defense for 48 yards on the first four snaps, Tennessee appeared to bog down inside the red zone, facing fourth-and-5 at the Cavaliers' 9-yard line. Heupel never hesitated, much to the approval of the vast majority of a Nissan Stadium-record crowd of 69,507 — football record crowd, that is, because the Taylor Swift concert earlier this summer at the home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans packed the place with the only group of fans who can rival UT supporters for dedication.

Heupel didn't need a timeout to weigh the decision _ a field goal from that distance was an almost certainty — or even consult the laminated list of plays he could choose from. Instead, Tennessee's special teams unit remained on the sideline, the offense remained on the field and Heupel's foot remained on the accelerator.

"Those are difficult situations," Heupel said after his team's eventual 49-13 win. "At the end of the day, you're trying to put your football team in the best position to win. Where we were on the field, it's the opening drive, I trusted our guys and that (Virginia) would be in a tough situation if we did get stopped."

After spreading the field, Vols quarterback Joe Milton III hit Dylan Sampson in the left flat, and the sophomore running back outran the pursuit to the end zone for the touchdown and an immediate momentum boost.

"I was happy," said Sampson, who added 52 rushing yards and three more scores on the ground to become the first UT running back to have four touchdowns in a game since John Kelly against Georgia Tech in 2017. "We're an aggressive team, so I was on the field nodding my head like, 'Let's do this.'

"The fans got loud. I don't know if that had anything to do with it, it probably didn't, but he called the play, and it went for a touchdown."

 

It wasn't just the offense that set an aggressive tone from start to finish. Unlike the first two seasons of Heupel's tenure, this year's Vols have enough talent and depth (finally) on the defensive side to attack opponents in waves, knowing if a mistake is made or when fatigue sets in, those things can be overcome.

Even when the ambitious nature backfired — on two of their next three possessions, the Vols were held on fourth-and-1 at their 29 and Ramel Keyton, after getting nearly 10 yards behind the nearest defender, dropped what would have been at least a 50-yard gain — the team never flinched.

Virginia managed just one first down, and zero points, on the three first-half possessions that began in UT territory. And after cleaning up the mistakes that had kept the game too close for comfort for a good portion of the first half — there was a stretch of four straight possessions in which the Vols gained just 55 yards on 18 plays — the offense closed the first half with touchdown drives covering 90 and 75 yards.

"We weren't completely settled in, but at the end of the day this game is never going to be perfect in any phase of the game," Heupel said. "It's about how you continue to respond and handle yourself and continue to compete."

Regardless of any early miscues, the Vols fed off their coach's belief and continued competing well enough to impose their will as the game wore on.

The offense, which had five first-time starters, amassed 499 total yards. The defense finished with 11 tackles for loss and four sacks — with 10 different defenders contributing — totaling 45 yards in losses to limit the Cavaliers to an average of just 3.1 yards per snap.

That unit was so dominant that by early in the third quarter, after Milton's second 1-yard scoring surge of the day, UT had amassed a 379-22 advantage in total offense.

But the eventual pounding of another Atlantic Coast Conference foe into submission began on the game's first drive and with an unwavering belief by Heupel in his team.

"He trusts our offense," said Milton, who completed 21 of 30 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns, ran for another 33 yards and two scores — and was not at all surprised when Heupel kept the offense on the field on the game's first drive.

"He trusts our preparation, our ability to make a play," Milton added. "He believes in us. With all that being said, you've got to go out there and make it happen."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.