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Nichols: In Thumping of Tennessee Tech, Josh Heupel's Vols Show Keys and Concerns That Will Be Pivotal in The Swamp

The Vols blasted the Golden Eagles 56-0 in a game that gave a few ideas for next week.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Josh Heupel must have seen a matchup he liked with Mississippi State transfer JaVonta Payton on Saturday. 

Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker -- who started in place of the injured Joe Milton III -- tried Payton twice on the Vols' first possession against Tennessee Tech. The first pass fell through Payton's hands as he streaked down the field, while the second attempt sailed over the former Bulldog's head. 

Still, Heupel kept pressing the issue. Sure enough, after a four-yard completion to Jacob Warren to start the Vols' next drive, Hooker looked to Payton again. 

And this time, Tennessee's No. 3 delivered with a turnaround catch as impressive as his confetti-littered car, which roars down the street each weekday when Payton leaves practice. 

The play went 29 yards for a 7-0 lead -- but Heupel kept his foot on the gas, and so did his team. 

The Vols grabbed their first four turnovers of the season, Velus Jones Jr. sparked Tennessee in multiple facets, and UT took a 28-0 halftime lead that turned into a 56-0 win that puts the Vols at 2-1 going into Florida week.

But not all was worth smiling about, even against the seemingly hapless Golden Eagles. 

So, in this column, let's look at several keys -- and, by extension, concerns -- that Tennessee might be wise to remember going into next week's SEC opener in Gainesville. 

Rehab, ice up and pray if it's your thing

This is by far the most important key --and/or concern -- going into next week. 

Despite winning easily on Saturday, Tennessee struggled heavily on the injury front. 

The Vols started the game with a whopping seven absences -- Milton, Jabari Small, Cooper Mays, LaTrell Bumphus, Da'Jon Terry, Bryson Easy and Juwan Mitchell -- and the Tennessee Tech matchup only added to the Vols' list of names that will be visiting the trainer next week. 

Cedric Tillman headed to the locker room but returned in the second quarter, while Cade Mays, who was questionable this week, rotated in and out frequently. 

Dayne Davis was injured as well.

But the Vols' most concerning injury of the day has to be Kingston Harris, who slid into Jerome Carvin's right guard role after Carvin replaced Cooper Mays, who left with an injury against Pitt.

Harris went down in the second quarter, and trainers raced onto the field before helping him off the field. Harris appeared to be in significant pain as he headed to the sideline and did not return against the Golden Eagles. 

Jalin Hyatt returned on Saturday after leaving the Pitt game with an injury.

We'll see how many of these guys Tennessee gets back against Florida, but with the Vols' already-depleted roster, Heupel will need as many hands on deck as he can get. 

Keep the chili piping hot on special teams 

Tennessee fulfilled its third aspect of the game well on Saturday. 

Aside from a hard hit on Velus Jones Jr. during a punt return, the Vols' special teams unit maintained the energy that Mike Ekeler carries on the sideline. 

Walk-on freshman and Oneida native Kolby Morgan boomed his first two punts for 90 yards, with one pinning Tennessee Tech at its own seven-yard-line. 

Heupel said afterward that Paxton Brooks was unavailable, although he should be back against the Gators.

Whether the Vols do revert back to Brooks for the punting duties next week remains to be seen, but Morgan certainly earned some well-deserved attention. 

Velus Jones Jr. was another major spark for this unit, as he sprinted 49 yards on three returns -- two punt, one kickoff -- and would have had a 95-yard kickoff return to open the game if not for a holding penalty. 

With Ekeler's energy, UT’s deep kicks and Jones' hard runs, this unit can be a game-changer in an environment like Florida's.

Get different playmakers -- especially Jones and Payton -- involved early

Going back to the sideline point, though, Tennessee did have some nice downfield connections that will be essential against the Gators. 

Payton's catch showed his versatility, and Jones was impressive on a 45-yard touchdown scamper — on fourth down, no less — that put his team ahead by 20 in the first half. 

Payton finished with three catches for 46 yards and a score in his most impressive Tennessee game to date, while Jones totaled three catches for 65 yards and a score to finish with 120 all-purpose yards.

Walker Merrill had a nice day with four receptions for 40 yards, and the Brentwood native flashed the talent that brought him to Tennessee when he fought off tackles to put the Vols inside the five before Hendon Hooker's third-quarter touchdown run to make the score 35-0. 

Carry the defensive confidence -- and the ballhawking -- and keep it there for 60 minutes

Coming into Saturday's game, Tennessee's defense had zero turnovers in two games. 

That changed halfway through the first quarter, as Jaylen McCollough intercepted a pass and ran 16 yards the other way. 

The Vols added three more picks in the second half. Alontae Taylor would have taken one for six if his toe had not grazed the white paint on Tennessee Tech's sideline during the return. But Solon Page III made up for it with a 31-yard house call that left his parents grinning, as he put the Vols ahead 49-0.

Tamarion McDonald rounded out the fun with a four-yard interception return in the fourth quarter, his first pick as a Vol. 

Byron Young was outstanding in his debut, recording six tackles to tie Aubrey Solomon to lead the Vols’ defense.

If UT can channel some of that energy against Emory Jones and/or Anthony Richardson, the Vols will certainly have a higher chance of success. 

Ball control, capitalization and confidence in and from the guy under center

Tennessee's lone turnover on Saturday came from Hendon Hooker, as Hooker pulled his best impression of Brian Maurer when a defender sent him cartwheeling through the air. 

The ball came loose, but Tennessee Tech's missed field goal left the Golden Eagles unable to take advantage. 

The Vols, meanwhile, struggled to take advantage of some early plays, too. As mentioned, Hooker overthrew Payton in the first quarter. He also sent a pass sailing over the often targeted, often open and often missed Cedric Tillman before a pass went well beyond the hands of Princeton Fant. 

Tennessee needs to take better care of the ball than that next week, but it did capitalize well close to the goal line and on fourth down.

Case in point: Jacob Warren’s one-yard touchdown catch to put the Vols ahead 28-0.

Fourth downs and goal-line situations have both been issues with which UT has struggled in recent years, though those short gains won't come easily against a talented Florida defensive line. 

Aside from that, the Vols have to have confidence in and from the guy under center -- whoever it may be. 

If Milton is healthy, it's likely he'll get the start, although Heupel dodged a question about next week’s QB1. 

But the Vols have also gotten plenty of positive minutes from Hooker, while Harrison Bailey entered in the fourth quarter and sprinted for a touchdown at the end to put the lead at 56-0.

Altogether, this was a positive confidence builder for Tennessee. 

But if the Vols can’t fix a few of their basic problems — and get the aforementioned injuries solved — then Heupel’s team could be in for a rude awakening against a Florida team that fell narrowly against Alabama.