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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel is wanting this past Saturday's 41-34 loss to Pittsburgh inside Neyland Stadium to serve as a stepping stone for his rebuilding program.

It appeared in Sunday's paper as a 41-34 loss, and it forever will be listed the same way in the record books.

Yet Tennessee first-year football coach Josh Heupel is hoping that coming up short last Saturday afternoon against Pittsburgh inside a sun-splashed Neyland Stadium will be remembered some day for so much more.

"After watching the film, I thought our kids played extremely hard and competed," Heupel said Monday in his weekly news conference. "We talked going into the game about being able to play for 60 minutes and not really pay attention to the scoreboard and just continue to compete, and I thought our kids did that. It's a great foundational piece to grow off of.

"Obviously we have to be a lot smarter in the way that we compete, and the great thing is that those are all controllable things by us. We can be a smarter football team."

Tennessee had multiple chances to tie Saturday's game in the fourth quarter despite committing 13 penalties for 134 yards and coughing up three turnovers while not collecting any. Last year's team struggled to cope with adversity after a 21-17 halftime lead at Georgia in the third game gave way to a 44-21 lambasting, but this year's version twice in the second half turned a two-touchdown deficit into a one-possession game.

The Volunteers are expected to manhandle Tennessee Tech later this week in Neyland, but Heupel is planning to learn a lot more about his team before Saturday's noon kickoff.

"As a competitor, the great thing is that you get a chance to move on and that you have to move on really quickly," he said. "Don't pay attention to the outside noise, good or bad, and be consistent in the way you approach the lead up to kickoff. Your process has got to be right, and there are some things that we learned about the process leading up to kickoff that have to be better."

Michigan graduate transfer Joe Milton started Tennessee's first two games at quarterback but was injured during the second quarter against the Panthers and replaced by Virginia Tech grad transfer Hendon Hooker. The two combined for 238 passing yards, with Hooker accounting for 188 of that total, and they also combined on 14 carries for 103 yards.

Heupel will wait until later this week to announce Saturday's starter.

"I don't know where Joe is health-wise at this moment," Heupel said. "Right now, as we go forward, guys who are healthy will be ready to go compete and play, and we'll find out where Joe is here in the middle of the week. There are multiple factors that play into who the guy is who's going to be taking the snaps."

Asked Monday to assess Hooker's play after studying the film, Heupel said, "I thought he did some really good things from within the pocket. He threw the ball accurately, and most of his decision-making was right. Obviously the pick at the end was a costly play. If you look at what's transpired the first couple of weeks, the quarterback has to do a better job of taking care of the football."

Heupel was asked again Monday about Milton's overthrows and said the 6-foot-5, 244-pounder has "hit those plays in practice and scrimmages."

Running backs Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans are uncertain for this weekend's game against the Golden Eagles, who have opened with losses to Samford (52-14) and Furman (26-0), and receiver Jalin Hyatt's status is unknown as well. Heupel said that Monday morning's practice was a good start to the week.

"Everybody went out on the field today with great energy and excited about this next opportunity," Heupel said. "I think they all believe that we have a chance to be a good football team. We can control that, but we've got to push forward and grow in a big way."

 

Young cleared

The Vols have played the first two games without junior edge-rusher Byron Young, who earned praise throughout the spring after transferring from Georgia Military College. The 6-3, 243-pounder from Georgetown, South Carolina, ran into an eligibility snag with the NCAA, but the wait is over.

"He had to go through a two-week deal of being ruled ineligible by the NCAA," Heupel said. "He's a guy who's grown a bunch in our program. He's added 25 or 30 pounds since I first arrived here in late January, and he's been really good as a pass-rusher coming off the edge. I think he's going to add some things that we need on that side of the football."

Said sophomore edge-rusher Byron Young: "He works his tail off, and I'm excited for everybody else to see what we know is going to happen."

 

Odds and ends

Tennessee's game next week at Florida will be televised by ESPN with a 7 p.m. kickoff. Milton has completed 18 of 35 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown, with that efficiency rating of 106.2 ranking 99th nationally.

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

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