Tennessee got their 2023 season off to a solid start last weekend, taking care of business against Virginia, 49-13. It wasn’t perfect out of the gates, with some inaccurate balls from Joe Milton, drops from the receivers and some special teams blunders. However, they eventually got it all clicking to run away with it.
Now they’ll have another week to iron some things out before the stakes get raised. Tennessee has a tune-up game this weekend, set to host Austin Peay before SEC play begins. The Governors dropped their opener against Southern Illinois, 49-23. One year ago, Austin Peay finished with a 7-4 record.
“Defensively gotta handle tempo,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said of the Governors. “They’ll spread the football field, RPO game. We gotta do a really good job on perimeter screens, defeat blocks and make tackles in space.”
Austin Peay was down 41-3 entering the fourth quarter last week against Southern Illinois before scoring 20 points to close the game. Quarterback Mike DiLiello connected on 20 of 34 pass attempts, throwing for 214 yards. He tossed two touchdowns against two interceptions.
It should be fairly light work for Tennessee, offering a chance for the Volunteers to clean up some things from a week ago. You know Heupel wants to get the downfield passing attack clicking, and they’ll have a chance to do that on Saturday evening.
“Offensively going to have to have balance and be able to run football and throw football directly down field off of all that that,” Heupel said. “Nothing different than who we are.”
It’s another chance for reps for the younger players, too. That’s obviously going to be a big storyline here, as Tennessee can likely name their score in the first half. Nico Iamaleava, Kaleb Webb, Cam Seldon and Ethan Davis should see plenty of work offensively, able to run the offense at full song and gain some valuable reps ahead of conference play.
Heupel pointed towards special teams, a place that was a bit of an adventure last Saturday, as an area where Tennessee can continue to improve.
“Special teams, got a chance to take another step this week with some really positive things,” Heupel said. “I think we had 13 freshmen that were playing on teams. Thought they did a really nice job. There’s another step for those guys, obviously as young as they’re in their career, but our specialists, there’s some really good things. Just have to be more consistent.”
Jackson Ross averaged 35.8 yards per punt after getting off to a shaky start. We’ll see how many opportunities he gets on Saturday, but that’s a number that has to improve going forward. Return man Dee Williams should have plenty of chances to make a splash in the return game against Austin Peay, but more importantly, he’ll be looking for a clean day after losing a fumble against Virginia.
“Thought (Williams) did a really nice job throughout the course of the day,” Heupel said. “I thought the way that he responded after something not going his way showed maturity and actually pointed that out to the team after the ball game and did that again today.”
Tennessee and Austin Peay are set for a 5 p.m. ET kickoff in Knoxville on Saturday. You can stream the game via ESPN+ or SEC Network+.