Thursday morning, after practice, Tennessee Head Coach Josh Heupel addressed the media for the final time before the weekend’s game — just like he does every week. These press conferences are the last time we get to glean any information about his team, the opposing team and anything in between.
So today, he spoke about the upcoming matchup with Kentucky, the challenges of defending UK’s running game in running back Ray Davis — who sits at 15th in the country averaging seven yards per-carry — and how to deal with veteran quarterback QB Devin Leary, who’s having a bit of a down year so far this season but had some NFL Draft buzz around him prior to the year.
He also spoke on the two team’s contrasting styles of offenses and how that might play into the game’s outcome. He also gave updates on a few Tennessee players, regarding their health and progression.
While Kentucky is coming off two-straight losses — 51-13 at Georgia and a 38-21 loss at home to a Missouri team that’s a bit surprisingly sitting at second in the SEC East standings— Tennessee’s also lost four-straight true road games, though Heupel has only lost two-straight games twice since he’s become a head coach, and he’s 6-1 as UT’s Head Coach following a loss the previous week.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that Tennessee has owned Kentucky in football for the last 140-ish years since the teams began playing each other in 1883. The Vols are 83-26 all-time against the Commonwealth coal-miners due North. UT has won eight of the last 10 matchups, with Kentucky thumping the Vols 34-7 at Neyland Stadium in 2020 and the ‘Cats winning in Lexington 29-26 on a final, game-winning drive that came with a two-point conversion and just 33 seconds left on the game clock.
Prior to the last decade, The Vols owned the cats like a country boy owns a beat-up pickup truck. Since 1984, UT has lost to UK once — in 1984, 17-12 in Lexington. Alright — I don’t want both feet in my mouth if Tennessee lays another egg Saturday, so I’ll quit gloating.
Here’s what Heupel had to say about the upcoming matchup.
On Tennessee’s red zone struggles this year:
“It’s been a little bit of everything,”Heupel said. “It can be efficiency, and, you know, fundamentals and technique. It’s been penalties at times, too. At the end of the day, we’ve got to go put the ball in the end zone.”
Tennessee is currently ranked 20th in the NCAA in red zone scores, but that number is skewed by the Vols’ inability to get touchdowns instead of field goals. UT’s scored on 28 of its 33 trips to the red zone, but it’s only converted those opportunities into touchdowns 18 times. Not good, Bob. Not good.
Out of 26 opponent attempts, the Wildcats are ranked 99th in red-zone defense, allowing 23 scores, 15 of which were touchdowns. At the goal line, please put Milton under center and put Omari Thomas, Omarr Norman-Lott, Elijah Simmons or whomever the coaches want, and let them toss Milton across the touchdown threshold if necessary. Please?
On Wildcat RB Ray Davis and the plan to contain him:
“It starts with the five guys up front,” Heupel said.
“ [He’s] Big, strong, and physical. Their tight ends do a really good job in it, as well, with some of the condensed sets. Wide receivers are involved in critical blocks, too. At the end of the day, for him, he does a great job pressing the line of scrimmage. He uses the five guys up front extremely well. He plays with great pad level. If you’re not in a good fundamental position to tackle him, he’s gonna run through that stuff, too. Huge test to us to win upfront, but the second and third levels of our defense have to do a great job all night, too.”
Davis is currently second in the SEC in total rushing yards (781), first in the SEC in yards per-attempt (7.04), second in rushing TDs (eight) and has the longest rush by an SEC running back this year at 75 yards. The Vols are 26th in the country, allowing 115 rushing yards per-game. They’re also ranked 20th in the country by allowing just 3.1 yards per rush attempt. This is likely one of the keys to the game. Can the Vols’ front keep Davis from reaching the second and third levels of the defense? Because — per PFF — Warren Burrell is Tennessee's best rush defender in the secondary with a 71.5 grade, but he only played two snaps against Alabama and has played in just four of UT’s six games this season. Jaylen McCollough and Tamarion McDonald lead the defensive backfield run defense grades at 69.8 and 69, respectively, and in tackles with 16 and 12, respectively. But McCollugh’s been tagged for at least four missed tackles and plenty more bad angles, while McDonald ranks second amongst the DBs in missed tackles with three. This will be an important matchup for the Vol linebackers, as Aaron Beasley, Elijah Herring, Arion Carter and Jeremiah Telander will be critical in keeping Davis from reaching the third level of the defense where Davis is likely to pinball off a defensive back and bust out some chunk plays.
On which areas of this game are emphasized more because of the drastic difference in tempos of the two offenses:
“Well, at the end of the day, you understand the flow of this football game,” Heupel said.
“They tend to snap it a little bit slower than we do from the whistle to the next play. The number of possessions in this game, you’ve got to plan that there are gonna be fewer, just because of the pace of play on the other side of it. When that happens, it doesn’t matter, because whether it’s a 13-possession game or a 10-possession game, you have to maximize your opportunities. And that’s always true in this game, but it’s certainly gonna be true in this one, because of the style of play — and on both sides of it, you know what I mean? Getting off the field on third down, your special teams play, and offensively your efficiency and production.”
The Vols rank 119th in the nation in third downs allowed per-game (15.5), but on the flipside, the Wildcats sit at 127th in the NCAA, converting just 3.7 third-down conversions per-game. It’s like bad-on-bad and who can be just a little less bad. Tennessee absolutely has to get off the field on third downs. Or, eventually the defense is going to wear down — depending on how effective Joe Milton and the receivers are — because if the offense can sustain some long drives, or the universe smiles down on the Vols and Tennessee hits some big plays, it will give the defense some time to rest and help take the air out of the crowd while also getting into the heads of the UK players.
On the development and future of Vols’ sophomore WR Squirrel White:
“He’s had some of those performances throughout the course of the season,” Heupel said.
“At the end of the day when the ball’s coming his way, he’s played really effectively. For us, as a young player, he’s done a great job at continuing to develop. He did that last year. He’s done that during the course of this season, too. In this football game, there’s gonna be one-on-ones out on the perimeter. He’s got to play with great technique and go win some of those matchups.”
White’s play this year has left no doubt who the best receiver on the team is this season. He leads the team with 39 catches, and the next closest is Ramel Keyton with 19. He’s only got one touchdown — the spectacular grab against ‘Bama last week:
He ended up with 10 grabs on 12 targets and the one 39-yard TD snag, with nearly all of those stats coming in the first half of the game. He’s got two of the Vols 13 recorded drops on the year, via PFF, but he’s the highest graded pass catcher on the team who isn’t a running back, as Jaylen Wright and Dylan Sampson grade out as the best receivers on the team. A lot of that has to do with the change in the offense this year, as the Vols are trying to stretch teams horizontally more this season than the past two year since Milton and the rest of the receivers can’t seem to link up. Saturday would be a good time for a Dont’e Thornton appearance, but I’m not holding my breath. He had a crossing route hit his hands against Alabama and dropped it, likely hearing footsteps of the oncoming defender.
Another issue: Without Bru McCoy, the Vols are desperately thin with receivers who can play outside. White’s ran 195 routes, and 190 of them were in the slot. It’s the same with Thornton — he’s ran 51 routes and they’ve all been in same spot. The Vols are leaning on Keyton and sophomores Kaleb Webb and Chas Nimrod on the outside. So, DBs are using the Vols’ wide splits against them by forcing the young receivers to the sideline with inside leverage. Neither youngster is taller than 6-3 nor weighs more than 200 pounds.
Come Saturday, we’ll see if Tennessee can exorcise its road demons against a vastly different Kentucky team that’s looking to get its season back on track after two losses in a row.