The changes to Tennessee's football program were massive throughout the 2021 offseason, and we're beginning to see immediate results now.
Head coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired with cause due to recruiting violations, which led to a change at athletic director as well. While Danny White and Josh Heupel, formerly of UCF, filling in at AD and HC respectively, Tennessee began to immediately rebuild its program from the ground up.
We met with Matt Ray of Volunteer Country for this week's know your enemy question and answer session. Instead of primarily previewing Florida and Tennessee, though, Ray provided insight into the Tennessee football program and its significant changes under White and Hepuel's lead.
1. What have been the biggest changes you've seen to Tennessee football under the new regime of Danny White and Josh Heupel?
Matt Ray: The biggest change since the new regime came to Knoxville over the winter is the culture change, in my opinion. It sounds cliche because it is what every program harps on when they bring in new leaders, but given the shift in mindset and buy-in from the Tennessee players, it is easy to see. Danny White has been integral in this with Josh Heupel, and it is something they hope will eventually carry over to the fan base, but the results on the field are obviously a critical factor in this.
2. What is the general feeling surrounding the program after such a chaotic offseason?
MR: The Tennessee fanbase has bought in as much as expected. I think they are certainly intrigued by what the offense could be and the pleasant surprise the defense has been through three games, but Florida has been and will continue to be the measuring stick for Tennessee early in the season. That's the game fans lock in on before the season starts, so I am interested to see how Saturday shakes out and where things stand after the game. I don't think Josh Heupel has to win to get more buy-in, but go give your team a shot in the second half in The Swamp, and this would go a long way with the Tennessee faithful.
As far as staff and support staff, there is optimism about the future of this program. They feel confident in the pieces they procured in the transfer portal during the off-season, and they love the buy-in from their players on the roster. Everyone who came to Tennessee understood that this was an uphill climb, and I have not seen anything early to suggest anyone is deterred.
3. Tennessee saw its roster get torn apart and sewn back together following Jeremy Pruitt's firing. Which positions were affected the most, and which newcomers have emerged as key players for UT?
MR: The offensive line was hit hard and lost two guys with multi-game starting experience in Jahmir Johnson and Wanya Morris at tackle. Eric Gray and Ty Chandler handled more than 95% of the work at the running back position, and Henry To'o To'o and Quavaris Crouch accounted for all ten starts at both inside backer positions last fall.
On the offensive line, Tennessee has been a bit more by committee. Cade Mays has worked to fill one tackle spot, and former five-star Darnell Wright has continued to grow and lock down the other tackle spot.
At running back, second-year talent Jabari Small has been a 1-2 punch with JuCo newcomer Tiyon Evans to handle most of the duties. With Small banged up last week, freshman Jaylen Wright saw plenty of touches, and he is a player the staff is high on.
Juwan Mitchell, a Texas transfer, has joined veteran linebacker Jeremy Banks in the middle of Tennessee's defense to replace the void left by Crouch and To'o To'o. Both guys had multiple games starting experience.
4. What do you make of the Volunteers' quarterback situation currently?
MR: Josh Heupel has refused to tip his hand, and no one around the program is offering anything up either. Joe Milton III did not have an ideal start to his Tennessee career, obviously, but the staff loves his ceiling. He allows them to do what they want in terms of driving the ball down the field, but he has to piece together the accuracy piece quickly if he is going to be the guy on Saturdays.
Tennessee will evaluate him again tomorrow to determine more of his status for Saturday, but at this point, how do you take the ball out of Hendon Hooker's hands if Milton's status is in question. I don't expect anyone to know a real decision until game time on Saturday. If Milton is healthy, I think there is a good chance we see him in this ball, even if he does not start.
5. What's your prediction for the game? Which players could surprise Florida fans on Saturday?
MR: It would be foolish to pick against Florida. I picked Alabama to cover the spread last weekend, and that made me look foolish. Dan Mullen seemed to find more of an offensive identity last week, and he will look to sustain it this week. I think defensively, Tennessee could have some success early on, but if Josh Heupel's warp-speed offense stalls out, they will be in trouble.
In terms of surprise, I think I would keep an eye on Jimmy Calloway. He has made a couple of big plays for the Vols, but he is a guy Tennessee has been careful with to this point in the season as he was working back from a nagging injury. I think they will look to get him more touches.
Same with Tiyon Evans. If Small is healthy, it will continue to be a 1-2 punch for the Vols, but Evans is a great receiving threat out of the backfield, and Tennessee has to get something working there.
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