Nichols: 'New age approach’ pairs with familiar bonds and excitement in Tennessee's stay at 2021 SEC Media Days

Josh Heupel and his players discussed NIL, vaccinations rates and much more in Hoover. But what really stood out to me was the Vols’ commitment to pairing their ‘new age style’ with Tennessee’s tradition, and the relationship development that comes with that change.
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HOOVER, Ala. -- When Josh Heupel strolled to the podium in the main ballroom at SEC Media Days on Tuesday, he was greeted by a variety of intimidating stimuli.

Blinding lights. Zooming cameras. Hundreds of eyes. And, of course, dozens of questions. 

Three of those four aspects are new for Heupel in his experience at Tennessee, as he's only addressed media members electronically since being hired on January 27. 

That readjustment to in-person communication is one tie that binds Heupel to the 13 other coaches that make statements this week.

Three other commonalities are this summer's NIL changes, the appreciation of normalcy after the rollercoaster that was 2020, and the adjustment to vaccination-affiliated football.

But the Vols have differed among other programs in their ebbs and flows in the transfer portal, as well as a quarterback room that, while once almost barren, is now bursting at the seams.

None of those issues came to mind, though, when I thought of important takeaways for the Heupel era.

Instead, I noticed how UT’s representatives — Heupel, WR Velus Jones Jr. and DB Alontae Taylor — raved about the chance to use his ‘new age approach’ and relationship-based values to elevate this program back to what UT fans expect: championship-caliber football.

New faces stamp new spin on UT brand

The Vols’ lack of recent success was something Heupel mentioned almost immediately when he took the stage. Still, he made sure to add the comfort that comes with Tennessee's administration, as well as his excitement on putting a new spin on the Vols' rich tradition.

"If you go by wins and losses, right, we're not where we need to be for sure, but the only time constraints you put on that are ones you put on yourself," Heupel said. 

"I have a different perspective a little maybe of the opportunity that is Tennessee football, and I say that from my playing experience," he continued. "I went to Oklahoma when they hadn't been to a bowl game for five straight years. When you get the right alignment from president to chancellor to athletic director to head coach and you hire a great staff and you're consistent and you're accountable, I feel like you have an opportunity to move things forward quickly."

"There's certainly challenges we face as a program, but there's great opportunities, and that's why I came to Tennessee. This is Tennessee. This is one of the iconic programs in all of college sports, in all of college football. We have an opportunity to celebrate the great traditions while putting a new age approach on it. Our kids and our staff, they're all there because of that. They chose the Power T for those reasons.”

So where does that ‘new age approach’ start? With a high-powered offense that's been the talk of Knoxville since a promising spring game.

"Playing in the offense, like especially this offense, when Josh Heupel came, I did my research," Jones Jr. said. "I'm so excited with my ability to catch the ball, to get yards after the catch and deep ball threat, it's just like it's a dream come true playing in this offense, especially speaking for my receiver corps and also my tight ends. Like we're really excited about this offense.

"Watching film when he was at UCF, I realized from defenses it was definitely -- this offense is definitely up tempo, and I realized with defenses had a lot of busted coverages. Also, defensive line being exhausted, having to like rush over and over and over, which it opens up the run game. So it's a lot that comes with this offense, and I know it's like a difficult offense also to stop." 

But that new approach isn't just on the field.

"It's going to take a lot of different forms," Heupel said. "It's the way that we communicate inside of our building. Every interaction that we have with players, with staff, with janitors, it doesn't matter who it is, creating and harnessing energy inside of our building.

"It's the way that we interact with them outside the game, the things that we've talked about and I've done with our players in the 5 1/2 months that we've been here. As we move forward, it may be different opportunities as far as what the uniform looks like when you run out on the field. Look good, feel good, play good. We want to create a positive player experience from the moment that they step on campus until they're done but have a long-term relationship with them that lasts forever."

Off-field bonds working so far

“Forever” is certainly a long time, but Tennessee’s coach had those relationships high on his checklist from the moment he stepped on the tarmac at McGhee-Tyson Airport.

“The first priority when I and our staff got to Tennessee was about relationships, and it still is today,” Heupel said. “That will be the foundation of everything that we do inside of our program, but that came through a conversation with our players. The first night I got hired, I had about an hour and a half meeting with them, and one of the things that I realized that they recognized that they wanted, that they wanted and needed, was connection. That's why we spent an inordinate amount of time connecting with our players, getting to know them -- their strengths, their struggles, their greatest triumphs, the hardships that they faced -- and have had a lot of fun in doing that.”

Heupel has also used the word “family” on countless occasions, and he's backed it up with team connection events like post-workout dodgeball games and crawfish boils inside Neyland Stadium.

Jones delved more into what those moments have meant to players.

"What I realized from that, you know, I knew that bonding with our team is very important when I came to Tennessee," Jones said. "Coach Heupel coming in and giving us activities and stuff that you could just see the connection and how close it brought the team together. Definitely switching the locker room around, putting upperclassmen with lowerclassmen, like seniors and freshmen or walk-ons and mixing it up like that, how close our team is.

"We just went to the Main Event together, just seeing everybody having fun because at the end of the day, you know it's about brotherhood. Those are my brothers, and that's who we're going to be going to war with each other. Without brothers and bonding and connection, you have nothing. You stand no chance. And I feel like our team has come a long way. Everybody interacting with each other, it's an amazing sight, honestly."

Jones also mentioned that players hang out after workouts, not leaving "until an hour later because we're talking about anything, everybody just talking, laughing. I feel like that's what it's all about, connection."

For Heupel, that off-field bond has also meant trips with his family. 

“My wife and I knew, in coming to Knoxville, that it was going to be a special place to live for our two kids, 13 and 11, Hannah and Jace, and through the month of June, obviously, recruiting was a busy time, but here in July we've gotten a chance to really partake and enjoy a Tennessee lifestyle and Tennessee living,” he said.

“It's been great to connect with the community, whether that's in Knoxville floating the river, or jumping on a boat in the lake and hitting some of the trails, or going up to the Smoky Mountains and floating down the river with our kids. It's been a lot of fun.”

That fun will reach another level when football arrives, and Heupel noted his excitement about running through the T and “making that right-hand turn behind Smokey.”

But when Heupel does make that turn, and Tennessee kicks off against Bowling Green in prime time on September 2nd? Well, all the talking will be off the table.

Because winning in Knoxville requires action. 

And the lights of Neyland Stadium will be far brighter than the ones that greeted Heupel in Hoover on Tuesday.