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AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee offensive lineman K'Rojhn Calbert (74) and quarterback Brian Maurer celebrate with fans after the Vols' 41-21 win over South Carolina on Oct. 26, 2019, in Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE — There are your garden variety, blood-runs-orange University of Tennessee football fanatics. Then there's Angie Miller of Sevierville.

"I probably shouldn't say this," began the 59-year-old Miller as she and her husband Norman entered Neyland Stadium on Saturday morning for the Volunteers' first public practice under new coach Josh Heupel. "But I've got four kids and a bunch of grandkids, and the night we won the national championship is the happiest day of my life."

There haven't been a lot of happy days for any member of the Big Orange Nation over the past decade or so. The arrival of Heupel in January after UT brass fired Jeremy Pruitt for alleged NCAA violations marked the fifth Vols head coach since Phillip Fulmer — who won that aforementioned natty to cap the 1998 season — was let go near the end of the 2008 season.

"I remember them all," Angie said. "I got on that Lane (Kiffin) Train. That was a joke. Then (Derek) Dooley. Then the whole 'Brick by Brick' thing (Butch Jones). Then this last guy. The last couple of years you could just see the desire go out of the kids on the sideline. You need a leader, and they haven't had one."

Exactly what kind of leader Heupel will be once the 2021 season kicks off Sept. 4 against Bowling Green, COVID-19 willing, is anybody's guess. However, if Saturday's 173-minute practice — Tennessee's eighth of 15 spring sessions allotted by the NCAA — was any indication, the returning players and newcomers already on campus seem eager to achieve what those under Kiffin, Dooley, Jones and Pruitt could not.

The pace was brisk, the hitting hard, the attentiveness to instruction admirable, all of it befitting the new marketing slogan that appeared on the scoreboard in the south end zone: "e-VOL-ution 2021."

And on the rare occasions the players did appear to disappoint their position coaches, those coaches were more than happy to let them know about it in a way all 1,200 or so fans gathered in the west side's lower bowl — most of them dutifully wearing masks and social distancing — could appreciate.

In fact, when defensive line coach Rodney Garner quite loudly and colorfully corrected one player's technique on a pass rush drill, one fan screamed: "Way to shake them up, Coach! It's about time we got somebody like you!"

Nearly half the crowd applauded.

As for the rest of the practice, though Heupel may not name a starter at quarterback before the close of summer camp, early returns would seem to indicate redshirt sophomore Brian Maurer — whom Heupel once recruited during his time at the University of Central Florida — would have an early advantage.

Maurer threw all but one pass on the money, especially three or four deep balls, rifling at least three touchdown passes along the way, including a perfect deep strike to Ramel Keyton in the end zone. In a Heupel offense that relies heavily on accurate throws, Maurer could be the answer for the opener.

That's especially true when fans such as 19-year-old Pellissippi State student Ryan Jared listed "improved offense" as what he most hoped to see Saturday.

Added 23-year-old Brent Simpson: "I think the offense will be much better. (Heupel's) had top offenses with a lot less talent than he'll have here."

Angie Miller has been here, there and everywhere to follow her Vols since first watching them on her grandfather's knee as an infant. She vividly recalled flying to Hawaii for the final game of the 1975 regular season with her father, the charter plane having to take off from Chattanooga instead of Knoxville because "the plane was too big for the Knoxville airport. I remember everybody on board being dressed in orange and white. It was great."

She also remembered the group planning to tour Pearl Harbor.

"But the president (Gerald Ford) was coming in for Pearl Harbor Day the day after the game (Dec. 6), so because of security, we had to see it from a glass-bottom boat. Hawaii had a really pretty stadium and we won (28-6)."

Both Norman and Angie are lifelong UT fanatics, Norman having grown up in Newport and Angie in East Knoxville.

"I used to work the games, selling Cokes and stuff," Norman said.

"Our daughter used to sell hot dogs," Angie said.

"We've been coming here for a long time," Norman added.

The Millers are such big fans that they even renamed their 2-year-old terrier "Bailey" last season in honor of quarterback Harrison Bailey.

"I really believe this year is going to be so different," Angie said. "Just the feel, the vibe. I read one article where the players said they haven't been able to talk to the coaches for years, but that this staff's doors are always open to them. This is the first day of a new era in UT football."

This is not to say no obstacles await. Beyond the seeming dip in talent, there is the not so little matter of the NCAA investigation to worry about.

"I'm not that concerned," Simpson said.

Said Angie: "I just don't think it's fair to penalize these players or coaches. They didn't do anything. The penalties should be placed on the former players and coaches who broke the rules."

Regardless, Norman said with a shrug, "It can't be any worse than the mess we're already in."

When you've posted losing seasons three of the past four years, including losses in 24 of your past 34 Southeastern Conference games, he has a point.

Angie hopes she has a solution: "I pray every day for this coach."

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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