KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After Tennessee’s win over South Carolina last Saturday, the Vols’ locker room featured a special little visitor.
Aspen, the daughter of Tennessee defensive back Brandon Turnage, sat in her father’s arms as other players congregated around the pair.
It wasn’t the first time UT’s players have held their kids after games this season. Turnage has walked around Neyland Stadium with Aspen after other games, and he and Tiyon Evans posed with their children after the Vols’ win over Tennessee Tech.
Saturday was different, though. Instead of Turnage just bonding with his daughter on the field, he took her inside to celebrate.
And Josh Heupel was the one who extended the invitation.
“There right toward the end of the game, (Turnage) was like, ‘Hey, y’all gotta make sure you go see Aspen,’ which is (Turnage’s) daughter’s name,” Alontae Taylor said on Monday. “I was like, ‘Hey, we’re there.’”
“We’re a big family here,” Taylor continued. “The biggest change that I can see within our staff and our team is it’s truly a family. Coaches didn’t have a problem with (Turnage) bringing Aspen into the locker room, and everyone just loving on him and loving on her.”
In his Tennessee tenure, Heupel has referenced the ‘family’ approach time and time again.
We’ve seen clear evidence of that, too, from the aforementioned player-children reunions to Heupel tossing the football with his son Jace during pregame.
But no moment represents that culture shift more than Turnage’s daughter being welcomed into the Vols’ inner sanctum — and the fact that Turnage’s teammates were so eager to have her there.
Picture it: a bunch of sweaty players, their faces smeared in eyeblack from a statement win, exchanging their swagger for sweetness as they oohed and ahh’d over their teammate’s baby girl.
That’s quite an image to conjure, but it’s also a complete change from the hardened approach we saw in the last staff.
Since Jeremy Pruitt was fired, players have spoken about his militaristic approach to practices.
Pruitt appeared equally begrudging during media sessions, and the screenshots from his experiences on “The Jeremy Pruitt Show” paint the picture of a coach who was unwilling to fulfill the basic requirements of someone in his position.
By stark contrast, Heupel spoke excitedly and fervently in his most recent game review session, especially when discussing what it was like to welcome legendary VFLs back into the facility — something Pruitt almost never did.
We’ve also seen the differences at practice, as Heupel and his staff have carried positivity and passion into each day on Haslam Field.
The resulting records speak for themselves. Pruitt, who appeared bored and often sparred with anyone who dared ask a tough question, finished his last season 3-7 and suffered a program-staining loss to Georgia State in his second year.
Heupel is already 4-2, having accumulated more points (232) in six games than Pruitt’s team did in 10 matchups last season (215). This week, he has a chance to notch a marquee win against No. 13/14 Ole Miss.
Each team’s offense is ranked in the nation’s top 10, as many expect this game to be a shootout.
But the Vols’ prowess extends beyond offense, as Heupel reiterated last weekend that he wants his team to flummox opponents across both sides of the ball.
“We’re one of the fastest, most aggressive football teams on the field every single Saturday,” Heupel said last weekend. “Some people approach that with, ‘Hey that’s an offensive mindset,’ no that’s how we want to be in all three phases of the football game. I know recruits are seeing that week in and week out.
“(Recruits) can see us growing as a football program, they see the fun that our players are having in the buildup of the week and how they perform on Saturday. They see how hard we’re playing and it’s a family and when you do those things, you know that the foundation of your program are really rock solid to be able to do those things as we continue to grow.”
Turnage is certainly proof of the growth, as he notched 14 tackles, two for loss, in his first ever UT start against the Gamecocks.
The outing was good enough to earn him SEC Defensive Player of the Week, though Turnage wasn’t aware of that when the Carolina game ended.
Instead, as the clock plummeted to zero last weekend, Turnage found his daughter so he could show her off to his teammates.
Then, they all celebrated together — as a family.
That’s not a bad place to start when building a program.
But it’s even more crucial when attempting to one-up a controversial ex.
Cover photo via KNS