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SEC photo by Jimmie Mitchell / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel speaks Tuesday during his first appearance at Southeastern Conference Media Days in Hoover, Alabama.

HOOVER, Ala. — In most situations, new college football coaches assume the reins of struggling programs.

That's certainly the case with Tennessee's Josh Heupel, who made his first Southeastern Conference Media Days appearance Tuesday afternoon, but Heupel is the rare example of someone who has started at the top as well. He is taking over the Volunteers after a volatile 3-7 season under predecessor Jeremy Pruitt three years after replacing Scott Frost at Central Florida following Frost's 13-0 run.

"I think every job is different, because the players are different, the recruiting landscape is different, the conference is different and the city you reside in — everything is so different," Heupel said. "Certainly you can look at the difference in the wins and losses at the two programs that I took over, and I think the other major difference when I took this program over is when we took it over.

"I got there at the end of January, and our staff was there in the middle of February. You condensed seven months of work into five months by the time we got to June in recruiting, but our staff has worked hard, and I think we've pushed forward on creating real relationships with our players that will pay dividends this season and also as we move forward."

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The Vols are rapidly moving forward to their Aug. 4 start to preseason camp, with a Sept. 2 date against Bowling Green inside Neyland Stadium a bit further down the road. Tennessee's practices will be in the morning, with Heupel saying that players would be in the building by 7:30.

Despite a hectic six months, Heupel doesn't consider Tennessee in catch-up mode at this point, but he knows the challenges will continue.

"It's the first time you're going through anything together," Heupel said. "Naturally you're going to find things that you want to tweak as you go through it. I feel like we're in a great position. Our staff has pushed forward. Our players have pushed forward.

"I love where we're at heading into training camp. We've got to have a great training camp and grow in our knowledge and understanding of who we are."

Tennessee's two players who accompanied Heupel to Media Days — senior receiver Velus Jones Jr. and senior cornerback Alontae Taylor — do not view the program as being behind either.

"Coach Heupel came in and got a staff really fast so that our players would not sit around waiting to see who our coaches were," Taylor said. "We got them fast and built those relationships really quick, and by doing that, I felt like it was a walk in the park as far as guys being in the meeting rooms and learning the playbook. I think we're exactly where we need to be going into training camp."

Said Jones: "We're trusting the process and are exactly where we need to be. Everything will work out fine as long as we keep putting in the hard work."

Tennessee's camp will be headlined by a quarterback competition involving returnees Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer and graduate transfers Hendon Hooker (Virginia Tech) and Joe Milton (Michigan). Also of importance will be the acclimation of the eight players obtained through the NCAA transfer portal, which includes two players on each of the three levels defensively.

With his first Media Days now in the rear view mirror, Heupel is ready to continue on the mission that took him from the comforts of Orlando to the uncertainties of Knoxville.

"As much as anything, you want to be at Tennessee because it's Tennessee," Heupel said. "The stadium. The Vol Navy. The Vol Walk. I've experienced some of those things from the other side of the coin. You want to be somewhere where football matters all day every day and where you have the resources to go chase the things you want, which are championships, and Tennessee affords you that opportunity.

"I'm really proud of our football team from where we've come in five-and-a-half or six months, and obviously we've got a long way to go, but I'm really excited about the progress we've made."

 

Cloudy months ahead

Tennessee will be entering the 2021 season with the unknown of potential NCAA sanctions stemming from the Pruitt era. He was asked about that again Tuesday.

"It's a true conversation that you have to have with your recruits," Heupel said. "It's a question I asked before I took this job, and our administration was completely transparent with me. I really do feel like this is going to be a speed bump."

 

Mitchell turning heads

Of the eight players Tennessee has obtained through the portal, former Texas linebacker Juwan Mitchell certainly has the most hype. The 6-foot-1, 226-pound senior led the Longhorns last season with 62 tackles.

"JuJu, the linebacker from Texas — I looked at him, and I was like, 'Whoa,'" Taylor said. "JuJu is a good guy and a good leader, and he has taught me a lot of things already from what he learned at Texas."

 

Odds and ends

Tennessee's roster is a little bit below the 80% vaccination threshold that SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is seeking, according to Heupel, who added that the goal is quite attainable. ... Heupel is the only active SEC coach to win a national title as a player. ... Heupel on Vols athletes having the opportunity to build their brand through NIL deals: "There is not a better place in America to do that than Knoxville, Tennessee — top five in every social media platform."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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