Quotes: With Home Field Advantage in the Rearview, Vols Eager to Stay Hot

Quotes: With Home Field Advantage in the Rearview, Vols Eager to Stay Hot

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Returning to Anderson Training Center after a 66-24 Senior Day victory over Missouri that saw the fifth-ranked Tennessee Volunteers record the most single-game yards in program history, the Vols turned the page to the next game and a primetime showdown at South Carolina.

After tackling two hostile environments early in the season, first at Pitt, then throttling a current top-10 team and SEC West champ LSU, the Vols faltered against Georgia. With a game under their belts to snap back to focus, Tennessee is preparing for another rowdy environment in a sold-out Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night.

“Honestly, I feel like everyone on the offensive side of the ball is excited to go into this atmosphere,” redshirt-senior quarterback Hendon Hooker said at the podium Monday afternoon. “We’ve seen what it was like at Georgia and moving forward, we know what to expect. Anytime going into an environment like this, you want to prepare and do different things to get ready for that environment, so crowd noise at practice is a thing. But really just going out and locking in and communicating at a high level is what we need to do.”

One of the biggest factors this season has been the play from the offensive line. The front five kicked into gear on Saturday, paving the way in both the run and pass games for the big night. Center Cooper Mays was named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week earlier in the afternoon, becoming the fourth Vol to do so this season, joining Darnell WrightJerome Carvin and Javontez Spraggins. The crew has had an honoree in 5-of-11 weeks this season and has seen massive growth under coach Glen Elarbee.

“They’re stronger and playing with better technique,” head coach Josh Heupel said about the unit’s development this season. “I do think their understanding of what we’re doing in year two, the fundamentals come along with that: their football knowledge, their IQ of what we’re doing, but then also defensively what they’re seeing. For us, we’ve had the ability for four out of the five guys to play consistently. The left tackle position has been nicked up a little bit here and there, but it’s been pretty much a two-man rotation. You combine it being year two, their knowledge and the consistency that we’ve had. Those guys have been able to play at a really high level.”

As they say, it all starts up front. Once the pressure is neutralized, the Vols feel they have a chance to compete with anybody—especially with Hooker, who was named SEC Co-Offensive Player of the Week for the third time this season on Monday, commanding the Big Orange offense.

“He is in complete command of what we are doing,” Heupel said of Hooker’s play this year. “You look at the efficiency of how he is playing, the ability to take care of the football, the dynamic plays that he has made with his arm and with his feet. We don’t look like we do offensively without him.” 

Tennessee returns to Haslam Field tomorrow morning to continue preparations for the Gamecocks. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. on ESPN in Columbia, South Carolina.

A full transcript of head coach Josh Heupel and select quotes from quarterback Hendon Hooker can be found below.

Tennessee Football Press Conference | Nov. 14, 2022 
Head Coach Josh Heupel 

Opening statement… 
“Just to start off, with the awful tragedy at the University of Virginia, we just extend our thoughts, and our prayers are with them and their program here as they go through this. Really tough and unfortunate situation. For us this week, obviously a huge road test here and a good football team. They do a great job in all three phases. They do a really good job on the special teams side of it. They have changed the way the game is played in their return units, and in their cover units. Very aggressive in what they do from blocked kicks to what they have done in the return game. It will be a huge test for us on that side of it and the same for us offensively and defensively. They have created a bunch of big plays in the pass game. We have to do a great job in matching them out and handling protection. The line of scrimmage is going to be important like it is every week. For us offensively, obviously the line of scrimmage will be important too. They are doing a really good job as far as pass defense.” 
 
On Dylan Sampson’s performance last week compared to his production earlier in the season… 
“I don’t know that it is necessarily what he hasn’t been doing earlier. The game, and just the way it played out, (we had) an opportunity to use him. Had planned on doing that a couple weeks earlier too, probably more frequently than he has at the beginning of the season. From the very beginning of the season, he is more comfortable in what we are doing, trust him in the protection side of it and feel like he can handle our entire package. During the course of the game, he played extremely well. Was solid in the pass protection side of it, but with the ball in his hands, I thought he had great vision, great pace , and then obviously had the ability to burst when he was at the line of scrimmage and go create some things on his own too, make people miss when he got to the second and third levels.” 
 
On Brandon Turnage’s recent success… 
“Part of it for him is just coming back and getting completely healthy. Through the course of the summer, was limited in some of what he was able to do. Training camp, we kind of had a pitch count on him every single day. Just getting more comfortable and confident. He’s a guy that I pointed out to the team actually this morning, just whether he was starting, getting a ton of plays or not, his investment inside of the meeting room and inside our program has been so consistent. You continue to do that when your opportunity comes, you take advantage of it. He’s played at a really high level. He is extremely bright and smart. He understands the game. He does a great job of helping some of the younger guys inside of that room. Because he is playing well fundamentally and his eyes are in the right spot, he’s been able to break on some balls, make a pick, almost had another one the other day. Everybody inside of our program loves who he is and what he’s about.” 
 
On Hendon Hooker contending for the Heisman Trophy and what areas he excels in compared to other quarterbacks across the country… 
“I haven’t gotten a chance to watch every quarterback across this country and watch every rep. He is playing at as high a level as I have ever had anybody, and I’ve had Heisman guys. He is in complete command of what we are doing. You look at the efficiency of how he is playing, the ability to take care of the football, the dynamic plays that he has made with his arm and with his feet. We don’t look like we do offensively without him. He certainly is deserving of being in that conversation. Have to go play the right way here the last couple of weeks and hope he has that opportunity. I believe he should.” 
 
On Cedric Tillman’s availability for the South Carolina game… 
“Obviously, it’s just Monday for us but as the week unfolds, we believe he’ll have the ability to play in this one. We’ll always evaluate it on the back half of the week.” 
 
On if there was any consideration to taking a knee late in Saturday’s win over Missouri… 
“For us at the end of the day, our two’s were in the football game when the ball went down to the 1-yard line or whatever it was. It absolutely went through my mind. I don’t know what the right thing to do is in that moment at the end of the day, but our guys continued to play football.” 
 
On Cooper Mays becoming the fourth Vol to win SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors this season… 
“He’s smart, tough and competitive. He takes great ownership inside of the room. It all starts with him, for us. For him, having a true offseason compared to a year ago and really throughout his career (was important). This was the first true offseason that he’s had. He’s stronger and bigger than he was and is playing at a super high level. Love what he brings to the table every day.” 
 
On what South Carolina’s offense can do to present challenges for Tennessee’s defense… 
“First of all, I said it in the very beginning. They’ve created a bunch of big plays. I think they’re second in the league in pass plays over 40 yards. Some of that comes off of play action and some from drop-backs. He’s (Spencer Rattler) able to extend and make some plays outside of the pocket with his feet, too. For us, we have to do a great job of controlling first and second down and then play with discipline. You can’t let their tight ends or their wideouts run free. We have to match things out extremely well.” 

On being aware of fake punts by South Carolina… 
“Last year they got us in punt safe, and we didn’t do a good job of playing the technique that we’re supposed to out on the outside. When our special teams units go out on the field, you have to be aware that they’re going to be aggressive after the punt. They’re really good in the return game too off of that, on punt return and certainly kickoff return, too. You have to do a great job of covering, too. They’re good in the return game. They place an emphasis on it. They’re aggressive in what they do. Our guys have to go out and play the right way. There are no re-dos. You get one opportunity when you’re on special teams unit. You have to go match it out, so eye discipline, recognition of your alignment and assignment based on the formations will be critical in this one.” 
 
On if Tennessee prepares for the noise ahead of a road game or if it handles it in the moment… 
“It’s a combination. We’ll continue to do some of the things that we’ve done here at home. In the moment, we’ve got to be able to reset and play. On dead balls in particular, you have to be able to handle it. We’ve done that in different road environments. This will be a great one. Having been there before, it’s going to be loud and you have to handle that part of it. We talked about it this morning. It has to be a point of emphasis to do the ordinary things at a really high level in this game.” 
 
On how much Tennessee’s offensive line has improved under Glen Elarbee since last season… 
“Physically, all of them continue to change their bodies. They’re stronger and playing with better technique. I do think their understanding of what we’re doing in year two, the fundamentals come along with that: their football knowledge, their IQ of what we’re doing, but then also defensively what they’re seeing. For us, we’ve had the ability for four out of the five guys to play consistently. The left tackle position has been nicked up a little bit here and there, but it’s been pretty much a two-man rotation. You combine it being year two, their knowledge and the consistency that we’ve had. Those guys have been able to play at a really high level.” 

On Jourdan Thomas emerging on special teams and what other players stand out in that regard… 
“He has made a lot of plays. He has defeated blocks, gone and made tackles; he is good in space. As far as our recognition, he has been on those units from the beginning of the season just because of what he did during training camp. He cares, he pays attention, it matters to him, he competes every single day. He has grown fundamentally. All of those reasons gave him the ability, combined with his athleticism, that we thought he would play at a really high level, and he has. Kalib Perry continues to grow. Elijah Herring continues to grow and do a lot of really good things on those special teams units.” 

On scheming receivers open… 
“I think you’re always balancing what your kids are good at, what they’re comfortable with, what they’re seeing on the other side of the football schematically. You have to put your kids in a position to win, and then certainly for our staff, we have been together for a while. You can draw back on things we have done in the past that maybe haven’t appeared here recently and try to incorporate those when you think you have an opportunity to create a mismatch.” 

On Jimmy Holiday’s performance as the gunner on punt coverage… 
“He has done a great job. He is playing a ton of snaps on special teams and is a difference maker for us there. His athleticism, his speed down the football field. You’re talking about on punt, being the gunner, he does a great job. One, causing fair catches. He has downed the ball inside the ball inside the 10-yard line a couple of times. He has done a good job of going down and making plays too. I think some of those unique positions, all of those skills translate over to offense or defense, but you are put in unique positions. His opportunity to play throughout the course of the season consistently at all of those spots has allowed him to continue to develop. He has a great future ahead of him.” 

On the defensive success during the Missouri game and maintaining it the rest of the season…
“When it is going good, all 11 are operating as one, you are playing gap sound, you are tackling well, but that happened because you are in good body positions because your eyes take you to the football. When it’s not going good, it’s not like a wholesale change typically is what is needed. It’s guys settling into the football. Ten guys can be doing it right, one guy is not, and all of the sudden you give up a big play. Doing the ordinary things at a really high level, our preparation, our practice habits have to be right. This is a big football game for us. It’s the only one we have this week. Really good opponent, great environment. We have to be ready to go compete for 60 minutes and be dialed in to the details of our jobs.” 

RS-Senior QB Hendon Hooker

On what the process was like getting on the ladder to direct Rocky Top after the win over Missouri…
“I was walking over to sing with my teammates after the win and the band director grabbed me and asked me if I wanted to direct Rocky Top? And I was like, ‘oh yeah, for sure’. I was kind of scared though getting on the ladder with my cleats on. I was like. ‘I hope I don’t fall’. So, I was being very careful, you know, walking up the ladder and standing there as well.”
 
On what the team is going to work on this week to handle the loud atmosphere in Columbia…
“Honestly, I feel like everyone on the offensive side of the ball is excited to go into this atmosphere. We’ve seen what it was like at Georgia and moving forward, we know what to expect. Anytime going into an environment like this, you want to prepare and do different things to get ready for that environment, so crowd noise at practice is a thing. But really just going out and locking in and communicating at a high level is what we need to do.”
 
On Cooper Mays being named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week and what he means to the offense…
“He’s being a great communicator, from me in the backfield and then just the rest of the security up front. Just being that force up front is huge for us and then being on the same page, that’s a huge deal. If everyone isn’t on the same page, then the play is dead. It starts with them (offensive line). So, just him bringing that energy every day and positive vibes. Whenever we’re at practice he’s always cracking a couple jokes, keeping us uplifted through the hard days of practice or camp. He’s a great guy to work with.”

-UT Athletics

Vols QB Hendon Hooker / Credit: UT Athletics

Blogs