A shell of the offense that propelled Tennessee football to heights it hadn’t reached in 25 years will take the field in the Orange Bowl against the Clemson Tigers. The Vols will be without three key players plus a key coach.
That includes their two 1,000-yard receivers each of the past two years, Cedric Tillman in 2021 and Biletnikoff Award Jalin Hyatt in 2022, and quarterback Hendon Hooker. They have also lost offensive coordinator Alex Golesh.
However, preparation goes on. Without Golesh, quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle said in a Wednesday media session that the play-calling in the game Friday night will be by-committee.
“I’ll be up top, and coach (Josh) Heupel will be down low,” he said. “It’s always been extremely communal anyway, and obviously one guy is going to end up making the call, and coach Heupel is the head coach, so it’s always going to go through him, but, as far as being the eyes up top and helping him get where he needs to go and him judging the feel and the play down low, I think it’ll be a really nice transition for us.”
Golesh has accepted the head coaching position with the South Florida Bulls. He has been Josh Heupel’s offensive coordinator since 2020, replacing Jeff Lebby at the time.
It’s ironic, as he first joined Heupel when he was with the UCF Knights, a rival school to USF. Halzle said he was happy for Golesh to get that opportunity.
“I know he’s been wanting to be a head coach, and he got a great opportunity, so it was all good on our side,” he said. “When someone gets a chance to live out a dream, it’s a great thing to see him be able to do it.”
Without Golesh, though, it has mostly been business as usual. Halzle said he had to take on more preparation roles, including the call sheet.
However, as he noted, the familiarity among helps. Halzle has been with Heupel since his playing days with the Oklahoma Sooners. Glen Elarbee has been with them since 2016 with the Missouri Tigers.
“A lot of us were at UCF together. A lot of us were at Missouri together as well,” Halzle said. “We’ve been together a long time, and I think because of that, we’ve had a great move over to this new situation, where we’re not fully staffed right now but everybody is kind of just taking different roles that they haven’t had to do and just making it as fluid as possible.”
Of course, coaching without Golesh isn’t the only issue. The Vols have to find new receivers to step up without Hyatt and Tillman. They’ve done it without Tillman for a lot of the year due to injury, to be fair.
Ramel Keyton and Bru McCoy have been able to step up at wideout. Squirrel White has caught lots of passes in the slot while backing up Hyatt. All three will be critical in this game.
“Ramel (Keyton) has played a bunch of ball for us this year,” Halzle said. “We have absolute trust in him. Squirrel (White), he’s dynamic. He’s lightning in a jar right there. That guy can go the distance at any time. Once again, we have a unique responsibility as coaches to put a lot of guys that haven’t played as much ball in good positions to go be successful. I think we’ll do that.”
Then there’s the quarterback situation. Joe Milton III took over for Hendon Hooker after his ACL tear against the South Carolina Gamecocks, and a week later he led the Vols to a 56-0 win over the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Golesh said Milton has been extremely focused and that the moment isn’t too big. He also said Hendon Hooker has been working with the team as well, which he noted is a huge help.
“I think it’s just a good presence to have around with the type of guy that he is,” Halzle said of Hooker. “He could have just said, ‘I’m done with it,’ but he’s still here, and he’s wanting to make sure that we perform well as a team, which is, like I said, unique, but he’s a unique young man.”