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Tennessee Head Coach Josh Heupel’s Kentucky post-game comments

Everything Heupel said following the four-road-game-losing streak-snapping win against Kentucky in Lexington

Tennessee v Kentucky Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Heupel held his post-game press conference after the 33-26 win against Kentucky, and he talked about Joe Milton, how the offense progressed from last week to this week, the hopeful emergence of Dont’e Thornton, Jr., and how the staff tried to keep his confidence up after such a slow start to the season. Obviously, there’s more, but those are just some of the high points.

Opening statement:

“Proud of the fight, the competitive nature of the football team,” Heupel said.

“They played for four quarters. Didn’t play perfect. A lot of things we can do better, but they played hard. We were physical and we talked about having to win the fourth quarter. Felt like we won the fourth quarter tonight. That was a good job finishing the football game in all three phases. Really nice job at end by the offense. So proud of our football team answering back. Told them we gotta continue to get better too. A lot left on the back third of the season and there’s a lot of things we can control that we gotta be better at.”

On the Vols’ rushing attack going for 228 yards against the 29th-ranked rushing defense in the country:

“Dynamic in the second half in particular, down the stretch,” Heupel said. “Did a good job making people miss and reading the blocks and running extremely hard, running through tackles. Jaylen Wright did too, got nicked up in the first half of it. Jabari (Small) ran well. All in all just big time effort from those guys. And obviously D-Samp was really special tonight. Big guys up front were really pretty solid with all the things that they were showing. They handled it.”

I wondered why we didn’t see Wright in the second half last night, and I’m kinda surprised Heupel mentioned it. He’s not usually too forthcoming with injury comments. Perhaps it’s just something minor, so he felt okay saying it. Either way, it sure is nice to have a stacked running-back room like in the days of old. Lots of Alvin Kamara comparisons being thrown around for Sampson, and this clip of the game-sealing drive where Sampson had 39 of UT’s 46 total yards are why:

On Chas Nimrod’s first TD catch as a Vol:

“Awesome for a guy that is young in his journey, continues to improve, works hard every single day and we obviously believe (he) has an opportunity to be a dynamic playmaker and beats man, press coverage and goes and makes a play,” Heupel said.

“Really nice throw by Joe. He’s a young player that, [we] continue to expect him to accelerate in his growth on the back end. Really proud of him for that play but with what he’s done here particularly since Bru’s gone out.”

On how the Vols’ defense contained Ray Davis, the SEC’s second leading rusher:

“We were playing a mixture of coverage, single high and two high,” Heupel said. “So the box wasn’t loaded all night long. We did a great job of block destruction early. We penetrated, made them bubble, didn’t let them get started. Then we wrapped up and tackled pretty well early in the football game. That’s why, I feel like, they went so heavy in the play action pass there, I don’t know, beginning or late first quarter, but did a really good job up front early.”

Credit to the defensive front seven here, as I was concerned about Davis getting past the linebackers and into the defensive backfield. VIa PFF, Tyler Baron — who had one of his best games as a Vol last night — was the highest graded rush defender at 80.1. The Vols had six players graded 70 or above (which puts them in the second-highest tier of player grades). After Baron, Tamarion McDonalad (79.8), Omari Thomas (76.1), Aaron Beasley (74), Jaylen McCollough (73.1) and Gabe Jeudy-Lally (70.6). Overall the defense missed five tackles, with two coming from sophomore linebacker Elijah Herring.

On Charles Campbell’s four made FGs:

“Growing up in the state of Tennessee wanted play with the power T on his helmet,” Hepuel said.

“To have an opportunity for him and his family, to represent their family. To represent the university means a lot to him. For him to perform the way he has up until this point— it’s been a lot of fun for him, but for us too. You know, he’s submerse[d] himself in the fabric of his football team extremely quickly. He’s a Vol and a great teammate inside of this locker room.”

Campbell’s now 15-17 on his field-goal tries this year, and has continued his streak of never missing an extra point in his career, with his season total at 29-29. He got lucky on the one he doinked off the right upright, but I’ll take that luck like kids taking candy on Halloween.

On how Kelsey Pope’s energy after the game:

“Huge for him,” Heupel said.

“Huge for the wide outs. Huge for us offensively and this football team. This journey throughout the course of the season has been guys have been banged up that nobody knew were banged up and played through it. Guys that got banged up that were no longer playing. There’s been a lot of variables at that position this year and more so than we’ve ever had since we’ve been here. They continue to fight. They continue to compete. Proud of the way they continue to step up. Big for Coach Pope but big for the guys in that room too.”

No Jalin Hyatt. No Cedric Tillman. Nobody like Jauan Jennings or Velus Jones. And no Hendon Hooker to get the ball to the current receivers. Joe Milton and the wideouts have been out of sorts all year, but we got a glimpse of what the offense can do when it’s clicking against Bama, and then with Milton going 18-21 for 228 yards and a score on Saturday, plus the UK DBs looking like they were at an ice rink with no skates trying to tackle the UT RBs., maybe we’re seeing this offense find its groove. 1.5 games is far too small a sample size to make any real determination, but I imagine we’ll know more after next week’s tangle with Missouri.

On how much winning close games depends on the ability to adjust

“I think you play the same game 10 times, the game’s gonna unfold differently when you play it 10 times,” Heupel said.

“ So there’s just so many variables in this game. The flow of the game but in this game, you’re gonna have guys go down, you gotta be able to adjust. Your personnel’s gotta step up. Sometimes you’re calling things a certain way based on your personnel. There’s other times where you, it’s what it’s, they got to go perform and execute in it. Tonight, in all three phases of the game we had guys that stepped up and played extremely well. Charles did a great job tonight. That was a huge part [of] the football game. I haven’t mentioned him. That’s not right. He did an unbelievable job. Long one, (he) got the ricochet. He was living right.”

The way I see it, Heupel is still learning how to make in-game adjustments and manage in-game situations. Last week, we saw a few instances that looked like bungled game management, and Nick Saban out-adjusted Heupel after halftime. But yesterday, we didn’t see many, if any (I can’t remember off the top of my head — don't kill me, please) similar situations.

This year’s team shouldn’t be compared to the last two because the Vols have lost so much production offensively since Heupel got here. The Vols are missing key pieces at H-back, offensive line, wide receiver and QB.

But Heupel’s steadfastly stuck with Milton — even through the hard times when it looked like Milton couldn’t hit a water tower with the ball — and perhaps we’re starting to see the fruits of this offense becoming cohesive going down the stretch run. Or, maybe, we’ll get punked against MIzzou and UGA because all of the sudden, the offense has forgotten how to throw a down-field pass. Who knows?

On what UK was able to do to slow down Tennessee’s vaunted pass rush:

**** Heupel sits, silently ****

Next question,” Heupel said.

UT sits at 18th in the NCAAA by getting to the QB 3.1 times per-game. Saturday, its defense managed just one sack, three QB hits and five QB hurries — all numbers significantly down from its season averages. While the defense didn’t get to Leary as much as it would have like to, and Omarr Norman-Lott led the team with a 65.4 pass-rush grade that leaves much to be desired — the defense still kept Davis in check, which might have been the preferred option if given the choice to do one or the other,

On the play of WR Dont’e Thornton, Jr.,:

“Three big catches by him,” Heupel said.

“You know, he’s been banged up throughout this journey this year, including spring, parts of the season. Where we’re at collectively as group, felt it was best to slide him out in this football game … those guys will kind of ping pong back and forth as we go.”

On keeping Thornton’s confidence up despite dealing with injuries and a subsequent slow start to his career at Tennessee:

“This game is a microcosm of life,” Heupel said.

There’s ups, there’s downs. Battle it, you know what I mean? He’s had, not a tough go of it, but a tough go of it. I say that, he’s got banged up in the early part of spring, back end of training camp. He just didn’t get super comfortable in what we’re doing. And I love the fact that he’s got great energy every single day, gives energy to his teammates. He’s hyperfocused on what he wants to do to improve. He competes hard every single day. So the challenge, when it’s not going well, just mentally continue to invest. He’s done that and we expect him to play well down the stretch.”

Last night was the first time all season the staff elected to play Thornton on the outside. Prior to Saturday, he’d run routes on 44 plays, with 40 coming from the slot position and four coming from being lined up inline. But Saturday night, the coaches played him 43 snaps, with 40 on the outside and just four in the slot. Correlation /=/ causation and all that, but Thornton was second on the team in catches (3), first in yards (63) and had the team’s longest reception at 47 yards with no drops in the game. Saturday was Thornton’s highest-rated game since UF, when he caught three passes on four targets for 53 yards.

I’d look for the coaches to keep working him outside, as UT desperately needs some help at the boundary-receiver position. If this can be the game that gets Thornton back on track, it will do wonders taking pressure off the two sophomores Kaleb Webb and Chas Nimrod.

Comments on the four-minute drive to seal the win:

“Well, one, we blocked it extremely well,” Heupel said.

“We got hats on hats for the most part and when it got to the third level, running backs made plays. They ran through people and made them miss and went forward. Huge, huge for that group and for this game to go finish the game with the ball. That’s what you want to do offensively when you get into four minute mode. We did a great job in the box. Oline, tight end, running backs and quarterbacks were a part of that too, controlling the edge defender. Really proud of the opportunity we got to finish the game with it.”