Heupel’s Vols throwing fewer interceptions than service academies

Tennessee Athletics photo by Kate Luffman / Tennessee tight end Jacob Warren, left, and quarterback Joe Milton III celebrate Milton's 11-yard touchdown pass to Warren early in the fourth quarter of Saturday's 49-13 rout of Virginia in Nashville.
Tennessee Athletics photo by Kate Luffman / Tennessee tight end Jacob Warren, left, and quarterback Joe Milton III celebrate Milton's 11-yard touchdown pass to Warren early in the fourth quarter of Saturday's 49-13 rout of Virginia in Nashville.

Tennessee will play its 28th game of the Josh Heupel era this Saturday when the Volunteers host Austin Peay.

Through the first 27 contests, the Vols have thrown six interceptions.

That puts Tennessee in service academy territory, with Air Force having also been intercepted six times since the start of the 2021 season, and with Army and Navy having each been intercepted on nine occasions. The Vols have racked up 73 touchdown tosses during this stretch, which is 25 more than the military triple-option trio combined.

"It starts with very small details and what we do all offseason, which is understanding our schemes and being solid in decision-making based off the defensive structure and the time we spend on defensive structures," Heupel said during Monday's news conference. "Then there are the fundamentals of playing the position. You put all that together, and you should be in a good position to take care of the football."

Sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III will be playing in his 19th game with the Vols this weekend and has yet to be intercepted. Milton was plagued by overthrows early in the 2021 season, but if the Vols receivers running down the field weren't going to catch it, then neither were the defenders running alongside.

Milton completed just 51.6% of his passes during the 2021 season, but his accuracy jumped to 64.6% last year and was at 70% in last Saturday's 49-13 win over Virginia in Nashville.

"His eyes were in a good spot the entire time," Tennessee third-year quarterbacks coach and first-year offensive coordinator Joey Halzle said Tuesday. "They brought a bunch of different looks, and he never wavered. It's why he completed 70% of his passes. His handling of the offense, and his efficiency within the pocket was at a really high level.

"He's playing the game like a quarterback at a really high level and not as a thrower. He's a quarterback who knows how to touch the ball up and use his arm strength when he needs it."

Milton will enter Saturday's game having thrown 174 passes for the Vols without being picked, the second-longest run in program history behind Hendon Hooker's 261 consecutive attempts from the 2021 Georgia game to least season's Alabama contest. Hooker, the primary starter during Heupel's first two years, racked up 58 touchdown passes and only five interceptions, throwing two each against Alabama and Georgia.

"They throw so many deep balls that are hard to intercept, because people are chasing the ball compared to a zone route, where you've got underneath coverage and a chance for a tipped ball," former Georgia coach and ESPN analyst Jim Donnan said Tuesday. "They do a good job of taking care of the ball, and the system is in place. Coach Heupel really does spread the ball out in all areas of the field, and the receivers take such wide splits that it's hard to double-cover them.

"A lot of interceptions come on zone coverage where the safety comes over the top, but it's hard to zone the Vols. They spread you out, and if you zone them, they're going to run the ball up inside because your safeties are so deep."

The sixth interception for the Vols in the past 27 games, incidentally, was thrown by walk-on quarterback Gaston Moore on the final play of last October's 65-24 thumping of UT Martin.

Trending upward

The Vols moved up from No. 12 to No. 9 in Tuesday's Associated Press poll and from No. 10 to No. 9 in the USA Today coaches poll.

Making the play

Sixth-year senior tackle John Campbell Jr., the graduate transfer from Miami, spoke to the media Tuesday for the first time since blocking a Cavaliers defender through the end zone during Dylan Sampson's 2-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter.

"I was just trying to make a play," Campbell said. "When we're on the field, I'm just trying to make it in the same way the defender is trying to make it. I'm just trying to go out there and give my all for the team and make plays like I said I was going to do."

Video of Campbell's lengthy block instantly evoked a scene from "The Blind Side" and quickly went viral.

"My phone was going crazy," he said. "It's still blowing up right now. I had never been on ESPN."

Campbell provided some humor last month in preseason camp, when he said an abundance of Knoxville-area Waffle Houses helped him pick the Vols as he was seeking a transfer destination. To nobody's surprise, that was his locale of choice to celebrate the win with some teammates.

"We went to Waffle House when we got back," Campbell said. "We got us some good eats."

The 6-foot-5, 320-pounder said he consumed a Texas melt and the All-Star Special.

Impressive debut

Another sixth-year senior, former Brigham Young linebacker Keenan Pili, collected four tackles in his first game with the Vols and helped hold the Cavaliers to 201 total yards.

Heupel said Monday that the 6-3, 240-pounder from Las Vegas received a game ball, and third-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks helped explain why Tuesday.

"You want big guys, but obviously in this day and age, they have to be able to function in space," Banks said. "He's able to do those things for us. We were very pleased with what he brought, just his overall toughness, his smarts and his communication skills.

"We're excited for him. We really are."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.