Josh Heupel made a splash his first year as head coach of Tennessee football with Hendon Hooker throwing to Cedric Tillman. A year later, Hooker throwing to Jalin Hyatt got the Vols to 10-2. All of this was with Alex Golesh as offensive coordinator.
None of them will take part in the Orange Bowl against the Clemson Tigers. Hyatt and Tillman have opted out to focus on the NFL Draft. Hooker obviously suffered a season-ending injury against the South Carolina Gamecocks.
Golesh, meanwhile, has taken the head coaching job of the South Florida Bulls. As a result, this is a brand new offense. However, Tennessee football players don’t seem to worried.
“This happens all over the country,” Jacob Warren said. “It happens every year where the star players end up opting out, and it’s this big deal about whether the team’s going to be the same or the offense is going to be the same or how are they going to be successful.”
Warren said that the Vols operate with a next man up mentality. Obviously, Joe Milton III is the next man up at quarterback. He started in a 56-0 win over the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Beyond the weapons replacing those guys, though, the whole offensive line, running game and tight ends are back. Warren joked that he and Princeton Fant could be used more over the middle now but insisted it’s the same offense.
“We’ve got guys that have been doing this all year, have been practicing all year, have gotten a lot of significant reps,” he said. “You look at Squirrel (White) and the plays that he’s able to make, and you look at Ramel Keyton and the way he stepped up when Ced (Cedric Tillman) was going through his stuff, and you’re going to see guys continue to emerge and step into those roles in this game in particular, and we don’t know who it’ll be.”
Indeed, Keyton made a name for himself in big moments this year. He had a diving catch to spark the Vols’ go-ahead touchdown against the Florida Gators, and he had a catch on their game-winning drive over the Alabama Crimson Tide.
For the year, Keyton finished with 27 catches for 486 yards and three touchdowns. Warren said he is the quietest person in the building but also touted his work ethic.
“He’s that guy that is super quiet but also is always the last one in the building getting extra jugs, catching more balls or working out the top of his routes,” he said. “We watch him make plays like that, like the one big, diving play that he makes down the field, and everyone’s like, ‘Wow! What an amazing catch! Where did this guy come from?’ and he’s been practicing, maybe not that specific where he dives and jumps out, maybe not that catch, but he’s been practicing catching that ball for months now and put so many reps into it.”
Stepping in for Hyatt will be Squirrel White, who has already caught a few big passes from Milton. White had 21 catches for 373 yards and a touchdown on the year.
With Hyatt and Velus Jones Jr. before him, Josh Heupel has turned the Vols into a program with elite slot receivers, and White could be the next in line. Warren said he will be successful in the future and in the bowl game.
“It’s really all about how much he buys into it and how much he commits to being that guy,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve had two very, very good slot receivers the past couple years in Velus (Jones) and Jalin (Hyatt), and I think he knows he’s got some big shoes to fill, but I think he’s ready, and I think he’s talented enough. It’s just a matter of him recognizing and him stepping up to the challenge and going to make the best of it.”
Joining both of them is obviously Bru McCoy, who was second on the team in receiving this year with 48 catches for 619 yards and three touchdowns. He’s obviously going to be critical.
However, the real question is who replaces Golesh. Warren said no matter what, Tennessee football will play the same style, which is up-tempo and scoring a lot.
“Someone else is going to be the leader, the voice of that offense, and I think it’s on us as players, at least as the older guys, to lead it and keep it going and just be that missing piece of leadership that we had in Golesh,” he said.
Cooper Mays also said the Vols will be fine. Of course, the Vols offensive line will help with the stability given Darnell Wright’s decision to play the bowl game at right tackle.
Building on what they have been doing all year and adapting are Mays’ keys to performing without Golesh. He said the players know how to run the offense.
“I love Golesh, Golesh was a great OC for us, and just being around him everyday, he’s got a great personality and an infectious energy to him, but we’ve got to find ways to move on and overcome the challenges that we have and find a way to get a (win),” he said.
There are still plenty of candidates to replace Golesh, but quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle seems like an obvious favorite right now. He could end up calling the plays in the bowl game for Tennessee football.
Despite not playing a position coached by Halzle, Mays had nothing but high praise for him. He said Halzle is one of his favorite coaches on the whole staff.
“Just a great guy, a great human, and, kind of the same way, just infectious energy and just loves being out there with us,” he said. “I think it’s something he thoroughly enjoys, and he just loves the game and loves being around his players, and he definitely builds confidence in all of us and especially his quarterbacks.”