Tennessee finished first in total offense in 2022 — can they back that up with a bunch of new faces? That’s the challenge for Josh Heupel, and one of those new faces is offensive coordinator Joey Halzle. Halzle got the promotion from quarterbacks coach, filling the shoes of Alex Golesh, who took the South Florida job over the offseason.
Halzle and Heupel now must show they can get things done with Joe Milton, something that they already accomplished in the Orange Bowl last year. Ahead of the 2023 campaign, Halzle gave us an assessment of where the offense is at.
Below are five highlights.
Tennessee’s running back rotation
The Volunteers enter 2023 with a clear top two at running back — maybe even a top three if you want to throw Dylan Sampson into that mix. Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small should handle the bulk of the work, however, both now entering year three in Josh Heupel’s system.
Halzle sees playing time for all three, and perhaps even the two true freshmen available (DeSean Bishop is out for several weeks).
“All three of those guys and the true freshmen (Cameron Selden, Khalifa Keith) we got are all playing on a really high level,” Halzle said on Thursday. “Our job is to find creative ways to give em the ball and realize their skillset. You’re exactly right though. Hot hand, sometimes a guy gets rolling and you don’t take that guy out of the ball game, but the way we play with tempo and the amount of snaps we’re gonna get, man, just because you’re not the first guy on the field doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t end up getting the most carries that day. It’s just rolling guys through, making sure everyone stays fresh and that we always have a guy on the field that’s capable of ready to go in that moment and not gassed out.”
We know how it’s going to go with Wright and Small, but I’m interested to see where Sampson fits it. I’m also interested to see if Seldon gets any playing time with the first team after a really impressive spring game.
Offensive line concerns?
Tennessee will be breaking in new starters at guard and right tackle — and maybe center. Cooper Mays is still battling back from a minor procedure, and his status for week one remains a mystery. As long as he’s back for the Florida game, Tennessee shouldn’t have any issues.
His absence has given Glen Elarbee a chance to build some depth this fall
“Feel really good about how the offensive line is looking,” Halzle said. “There are guys that can rotate in and play a bunch of spots. That’s what’s really good about the guys we have is guys can go in and out. We got guys can play all three positions, so it’s really helpful having that kind of utilization with guys up front. Feel really good about the five we’re gonna roll out there with in a couple weeks and feel like we can put a good product on the field with them.”
Halzle said there have been no issues with the tempo of the offense, even with Mays sidelined.
“No issues with our (tempo), that’s how we play. Everybody knows how we play. We play one type of way when we take the field, so we’re gonna roll.”
The offensive line will be something to watch against Virginia. Milton has struggled with pressure in the past, so keeping his pocket clean will be a big key for his 2023 season. Without Darnell Wright and Jerome Carvin up there, we could see some rough moments to start the year.
The wide receiver rotation
There’s not much mystery in the receiver room. Bru McCoy, Ramel Keyton, Squirrel White and Dont’e Thornton will be your clear cut top four. The only intrigue here is who comes off the field in three-receiver sets, as Tennessee didn’t rotate much at all last season.
“Yeah, we’ve got five or six guys we feel really comfortable rolling with, keeping guys fresh,” Halzle said. “Like similar to my conversation with the running backs. Roll guys through, guys keep playing. You feel really confident with, with that.”
Halzle did mention up to six, which would include Kaleb Webb and Chas Nimrod. Based on last year alone, it would be a surprise if either cracked the rotation without an injury. But we’ll see.
Getting young players up to speed
Grasping Tennessee’s offense isn’t something you do overnight. It takes time and reps to get comfortable, which is something that’s been happening since bowl prep back in December.
Halzle touched on that process as camp wrapped up this week.
“We show continuous tape,” Halzle noted. “We call it all mechanics of how everything should operate between the snap. And the biggest thing we have to drive home to our young guys or our transfers coming in is it’s not a fire drill out there, everyone running around crazy. All it is is efficiency between the snaps, operate efficiently between the snap and you’re gonna be fine. If you’re all over the place between the snap, you’re gonna have a hard time functioning. Like that’s boilerplate level what it is to be able to play it like we do.”
Joe Milton’s leadership
Make no mistake, this is Joe Milton’s team. That process began last year, really with Hendon Hooker still in town. Once Hooker went down, it seemed like a seamless transition.
“It’s really been since bowl prep last year,” Halzle said of Milton’s ownership of the team. “When it was very clear at that point with, Hendon’s injury and everything that it was his team to take over. He didn’t shy away from it, but he also didn’t become fake and like change the way he was. He was just him and with a new, dedicated new spirit about it where he just said, all right, this is like, I’m responsible for this unit now I gotta make sure that it’s going the way to go.”
Milton’s last year in college football will make or break him as a pro prospect. Every indication suggests he’s ready to go, however, dating back to the end of the 2022 season. We’re just a week away from seeing what the 2023 version looks like, with Tennessee set to open with Virginia next Saturday (Sept. 2) at noon ET.