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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / New Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel put the Volunteers through the first of their 15 spring practices Thursday afternoon.

Trying to get Tennessee as good as he can as fast as he can, new football coach Josh Heupel guided the Volunteers through their inaugural spring practice Thursday afternoon.

Putting on helmets was a first for the Vols since a 34-13 loss to Texas A&M inside Neyland Stadium last December, which concluded a disappointing 3-7 regular season. Tennessee was invited to the Liberty Bowl but quickly withdrew after an outbreak of positive COVID-19 tests, and things really got chaotic in January, when Jeremy Pruitt was terminated after three seasons due to NCAA Level I and II rules violations and was replaced by Heupel.

Rivals such as Alabama, Florida and Georgia haven't experienced the same carnage in recent months, so Heupel has the challenge of installing a new offensive system without rushing things for a program in catch-up mode.

"You've got to enter the building with great urgency and put pressure on yourself to soak in as much as possible, go out there and play and execute," Heupel said Thursday night. "At the same time, you're trying to balance that to where your kids aren't overwhelmed and don't have the opportunity to soak in the information that they need to go out there and compete. You want to find out who they are as a player.

"In all three phases, you're balancing your installs, and you've got to understand that it's year one and it's practice one, but you push it as far and as fast as you can."

Heupel was pleased overall with the attitude and energy of the first workout leading up to the Orange & White game on April 24, a showcase he was happy to point out is a long way off. The former quarterback who guided Oklahoma to the 2000 national title and the former Missouri quarterbacks coach who oversaw Drew Lock throwing 44 touchdown passes in 2017 — a Southeastern Conference record at that time — inherited four quarterbacks in Knoxville but only worked with three Thursday.

Kaidon Salter, the four-star early enrollee from Cedar Hill, Texas, did not practice.

"Kaidon is part of a group of individuals who are suspended from team activities at this point," Heupel said. "That's being handled on campus, and as we receive information, we'll act accordingly. There are high expectations and high standards to represent Tennessee football, and at the same time, we're going to stay true to those kids and support them as they go through this process.

"As we gain information, we'll be able to share that."

Four players were charged earlier this month with drug and paraphernalia possession stemming from an on-campus incident, with the university police report naming redshirt freshman linebacker Martavius French, freshman linebacker Aaron Willis and freshman defensive lineman Isaac Washington. The fourth player, Salter, was referred to as an unnamed juvenile.

Heupel said the three quarterbacks Thursday — junior Brian Maurer, sophomore Harrison Bailey and Virginia Tech graduate transfer Hendon Hooker — were given the code word "attack" and did just that in the opening practice.

"I thought they handled the tempo portion of some of our team sets extremely well," Heupel said, "and they handled the communication piece of it. They played within themselves. They made some mistakes out there, too, but they did a lot of positive things.

"We've challenged our guys not to make the same mistake twice and to accept the coaching in a positive way."

Tennessee earlier Thursday released its spring roster, which included jersey numbers for Hooker (5) and Salter (7), as well as new running backs Tiyon Evans (8) and Jaylen Wright (23). The numbers for two linebackers currently in the NCAA transfer portal, Henry To'o To'o (11) and Quavaris Crouch (27), are being left open should either or both decide to return.

"We're on a long journey right now, and our guys are competing and trying extremely hard to meet the expectations," Heupel said. "They love one another, and we're starting to be connected as a football team. We'll welcome anybody back who wants to be a part of that, but it's about the guys who are inside the room."

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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee sophomore running back Jabari Small carries the ball during Thursday afternoon's first spring practice for the Volunteers.

Pro day results

Former Vols left guard Trey Smith performed 32 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press during Thursday's pro day, and he also had a 31-inch vertical jump and ran the 40-yard dash in 5.11 seconds. Former receiver Josh Palmer turned in a 4.51 in the 40 and had a 34-inch jump.

 

Starks picks Dawgs

Malaki Starks, a five-star athlete prospect in the 2022 recruiting cycle, announced Thursday night that he was staying close to home and committed to Georgia. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder from Jefferson is the nation's No. 4 athlete recruit and the No. 29 prospect overall in the 247Sports.com composite rankings.

The Bulldogs have nine commitments for 2022, including six ranked in the top 100.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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