Tennessee had its second scrimmage of fall camp Sunday morning, and afterward, head coach Josh Heupel addressed the media. His tone seemed, well, encouraging.
“Thought there were a bunch of positives today in the scrimmage. I thought we played cleaner. Both sides of the football executed. Thought just alignment, assignment, eyes on keys, being lined up ready to go on the defensive side of the football, tackling in space – thought we did a much better job in those areas than we did in the first scrimmage. Offensively, at times, were efficient and played with great pace and handled the communication side of it at a really high level, too.
The situation at left tackle was first on the media’s docket of questions. Heupel said that senior, former JUCO transfer Jeremiah Crawford and Gerald Mincey, a RS-sophomore transfer from Florida who enrolled in January, are essentially neck-and-neck for the starting spot. Heupel also said the staff feels good enough about the viability of that duo to keep Darnell Wright at the right tackle spot. It doesn’t like seem we’ll get a started named at left tackle until Bowling Green, and even then, we might get the whole “co-starter,” bit on the officially-released depth chart.
It’s been back and forth a little bit through training camp. You’ve guys have heard me say this – at the end of the day, we’re going to need both of them, all of them. You experienced last year, injuries, and that’s true at the tackle spot, it’s true on all five spots. Those guys are continuing to compete. That’s not going to stop after today. That’ll happen all the way up until kickoff.
Anticipate both of them [Crawford, Mincey] playing during the course of the football game – throughout the season, and certainly in Week One. Who gets the majority of that or what the percentage breakdown is, we’ll continue to evaluate as we go through. Both of them have made a bunch of progress from spring ball and really since the beginning of training camp in understanding what we’re doing offensively. In the run game, playing with better pad level, being able to create some movement up front.
Both of them have taken major strides in the pass-pro side of it, too. I feel like those guys are continuing to progress as they should.
On the running backs, Heupel talked about how he expects to need the position group’s full complement of players ready to contribute, and noted that last season, five running backs played at least some live-game football. He also touched on the notion that the backs’ responsibilities beyond just running the ball will factor in to how much the staff can count on each guy.
As we continue here on the back half of training camp and even before we get to game week and game week itself, those guys proving that we can trust them and that’s certainly with the ball in their hands, taking care of the football. It’s in understanding what we’re doing offensively and delivering blocks and hitting the right holes. A big part of it is understanding pass pro, too.
Beating the reporters to the punch, Heupel followed the above comments with mention of the two freshmen backs, Justin Williams-Thomas and Dylan Sampson. While Williams-Thomas was the more highly-rated player coming out of high school, it’s reportedly been Sampson catching eyes with his play so far in fall camp. Heupel was careful not to tip his hand on who the staff might prefer at this point, instead choosing to relate back to the need of multiple, competent ball carriers modern football. Nothing against Marcus Pierce, but I think we’d all prefer to see only scholarship guys get carries in SEC play.
The two young guys [Justin Williams-Thomas, Dylan Sampson] in particular, I think have grown throughout the course of training camp, just where their eyes are at in understanding protections and being able to handle the football game a it truly gets played out in a live situation. We’re going to need a bunch of guys at that position. It’s just the nature of football, it’s the nature of that position and it’s the nature of playing inside of this league, an extremely physical league.
Offensively, the starters and overall rotation of wide receivers is a hot-button issue, though it’s not something I’m personally real worried about — despite losing Javonta “The Touchdown Maker,” Payton and “Versatile,” Velus Jones from last year’s group.
There’s no update on Bru McCoy’s eligibility status, but his was the first name out of Heupel’s mouth when asked about the where the staff is on how many WRs will play and who they’ll be.
“I thought there were some real positive things today, Heupel said. “Bru McCoy did some really good things out there inside of the stadium. I thought he handled and operated really well. Was physical with the ball in his hands.”
Heupel went on to say that Jimmy Holiday made some contested catches and converted some run-after-catch opportunities, while indicating that the staff has been impressed with Walker Merrill’s consistency through camp and and the progress he’s made since earlier in the year is notable.
Walker Merrill is a guy that’s had a really good training camp. Much better football player in understanding of what we’re doing from where we ended spring ball. I think he’s made strides and he’s done that offensively. He’s done that on the special teams side of it, too.
It wouldn’t be a Tennessee football media session these days if freshman WR Squirrel White’s name wasn’t mentioned, and Heupel abided by the implicit agreement. Tennessee’s coach also named Jimmy Calloway as another WR gunning for playing time.
So there’s still a ton of competition. We’ve had a couple of guys that have missed a day or two here and there through training camp. This next block will be important to see those guys function and operate and handle the totality of what we’re doing offensively and ultimately prove that they deserve to be on the football field and play. That’s Jimmy Calloway and Squirrel [White] – in particular those two guys.
Later in the press conference, Heupel was asked about the matchup today between the offensive and defensive line. He said that early in the scrimmage, the offense gave up some sacks, but he’s not yet sure if they were issues of guys just getting beat or if they could be attributed to OL miscommunications. Tennessee ranked 123rd out of 130 NCAA teams last season by allowing 3.5 sacks per game. So, obviously, that’s gonna be a concern until we see it isn’t.
On the positive side, though, short-yardage situations were another thorn in the offense’s side last year, but Heupel said the offensive line did a good job getting push in some of those instances today.
I think in some of the situational football, the one offensive line did a really good job of creating movement. Third-and-shorts, goal-line situations – there was some real positive things there, too.