Saturday, March 25, 2023
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Is Tennessee football’s depth starting to concern Josh Heupel?

A week after beating the Alabama Crimson Tide, Tennessee football set a school-record for points in a half and scored the most points so far in the Josh Heupel era. What’s there to not like?

Well, if you listen to Josh Heupel after the game, one issue remains clear: depth. The Vols put their backups in late in the second quarter in their 65-24 win over the UT-Martin Skyhawks.

Needless to say, Heupel didn’t seem too happy with the way they played. Although he praised the starters, he said he didn’t think the “young guys” performed up to their capabilities.

“It’s not that they didn’t prepare the right way, but it’s different being out there,” he said. “Just because the guy in front of you makes the play doesn’t mean you’re going to make it.”

The numbers seem to back Heupel up. When Hendon Hooker was pulled, Tennessee football was up 45-7 and had scored on every possession. They only won 20-17 the rest of the way.

One area that hurt them was defensive back. UT-Martin did finish with over 300 yards passing and drove to within the Tennessee 25-yard line all five times they had the ball in the second half.

With Warren Burrell out for the season, the Vols also played this game without Kamal Hadden, Christian Charles and Jaylen McCollough. Then Brandon Turnage got hurt in the game.

“Obviously we got thinner,” Heupel said of the secondary. “We were thin going into the game.”

To be fair, Heupel said Turnage will be fine and was just held out for a precautionary reason since he was hurt. He added that some of the other guys were held out due to just needing a week of rest.

However, he didn’t use that as an excuse for issues in the secondary this game. Those were on display even before the backups came in.

“We’ve got to continue to develop on the backend,” he said. “We can be better. Today a lot of that was, after the first drive, with our our young guys. We need to be better.”

Obviously, depth was always going to be the thing that held the Vols back this early into Heupel’s tenure. No matter how many strides they took, he couldn’t work miracles.

Heupel inherited a team that had gone 3-7 the year before and suffered a wave of transfers. Even with this 7-0 start and a top five ranking, there was no way this team could be complete by now.

Defensive back isn’t the only position Heupel targeted, though. The Vols went four-deep at quarterback. Joe Milton III had 135 yards and a touchdown while averaging nearly 20 yards an attempt.

Behind him, Tayven Jackson came in and played two series as well. Although he acknowledged that they did some “good things,” he added that they can “function at a higher level.”

“Really small things add up to the big things at that position,” he said. “All in all, pleased with a lot of it, but there are some things that we can better at.”

Perhaps this is the mentality you are supposed to have, win or lose. However, Heupel was very supportive of his players after beating Alabama, so it’s not like he does this every week.

Taking that into account, his criticisms after an easy Tennessee football win seem legitimate. The focus for Heupel is clearly on improvement.

“It’s a constant evolution,” he said. “Good teams get better throughout the course of the season. We have to continue to get better.”

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  1. My observation of the team after our starters departed was much worse than I anticipated for the FB back ups. It was similar towhat would be expected seeing the “BAD NEWS BEARS” trying to play football. I realize these are harsh comments but believe the play was the worst I had witnessed in my over 70 years of watching our Vols.

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