What will year three in Knoxville bring for Josh Heupel at Tennessee? More of the same, Vols’ fans hope, at least. The wind got taken out of their sails in late November as Hendon Hooker went down with a torn ACL, which ended their hopes of competing for a College Football Playoff spot. South Carolina dominated that night, and the reality of what was about to exit the program hit immediately.
Hendon Hooker, Jalin Hyatt, Cedric Tillman, Byron Young and Darnell Wright all came off the board over the weekend, now set to start their NFL careers. Heupel — who just seemingly pulled off a miraculous reload — will need to do it again.
If December’s free preview is any indication, that shouldn’t be a problem. Tennessee thrashed Clemson 31-14 in the Orange Bowl, playing mainly with their 2023 core. Joe Milton led the offense, tossing touchdowns to Bru McCoy, Squirrel White and Ramel Keyton — all will return this year. The Vols have also added deep threat Dont’e Thornton. There are still questions on Milton’s consistency, but the pieces are certainly in place around him.
Coming out of spring, ESPN re-racked the top 25, and Tennessee was in the mix for a top ten spot. They ultimately check in at No. 11, which seems plenty fair considering what they lost.
Did the Volunteers catch lightning in a bottle last year with quarterback Hendon Hooker and receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman? We’re going to find out this season as all three of them will be playing in the NFL. Michigan transfer quarterback Joe Milton III worked with the No. 1 offense throughout the spring after performing well in a 31-14 victory over Clemson in the Capital One Orange Bowl. Freshman Nicholaus Iamaleava, the No. 6 pocket passer in the ESPN 300, looked the part. He’s 6-foot-6 and wasn’t overwhelmed by the tempo of coach Josh Heupel’s hurry-up offense. Receiver Bru McCoy missed the spring and Oregon transfer Dont’e Thornton was held out of the spring game. The Volunteers have to get a lot better on defense if they’re going to contend with Georgia in the SEC East.
To his final point, Tennessee should be better defensively. They didn’t lose much — all they really have to replace is Byron Young, Jeremy Banks and Trevon Flowers. They have the athletes at edge rusher, and Aaron Beasley/Keenan Pili should be fine at linebacker. Jaylen McCollough and Wesley Walker both have a ton of experience at safety, and they have plenty of options up front and at corner. The depth is on a completely different level for Tim Banks going into 2023, and that should pay dividends this fall.
Tennessee should be projected to finish second in the SEC East again, playing behind a loaded Georgia squad. The schedule will always be difficult, but the pieces are there. I’m fascinated to see this program operate without Hooker for a year — it’s gonna tell us quite a bit about how good Josh Heupel really is.