KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After Tennessee’s 56-0 win over Tennessee Tech on Saturday, Vols wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. fielded a question about his gold necklace.
He smiled before issuing a response.
Because there, locked into the chain that rested on Jones’ Nike shirt, hung a tiny golden goat — a nod to the commonly-used acronym for “Greatest Of All Time.”
"Everything you do is a mindset,” said Jones. “When you go out there on the field, you have to feel like you are the best at what you do, and that’s the confidence I have in my game. No matter who we’re playing or who I’m going against, you have to feel like you are the best on the field.”
That mindset may be consistent for Jones, but in terms of focus, it seems the rest of his team is still playing catch-up.
Josh Heupel said Saturday that the Vols’ mental approach before the Pitt game wasn’t where it needed to be — that they weren’t “keeping what’s important from (their) perspective.”
He did note that the team improved on that aspect for Tennessee Tech week. But to survive this week’s trip to The Swamp against Dan Mullen’s 11th-ranked Florida Gators (2-1), Heupel’s Vols (1-1) will need more than the mostly physical keys and concerns outlined on Saturday.
They will need to be mentally sound, especially with transfers, young players and a head coach who have all yet to experience an SEC road environment — at least when wearing orange.
“Obviously, the level of competition is going to step up next week,” said Heupel, who noted Saturday that he would be making an immediate transition to Gator preparation. “Our players are excited about that opportunity, a big challenge for us as a program. But we have to make some strides this next week.”
Those strides remain necessary no matter who’s under center in Gainesville — a question Heupel dodged Saturday, although he did mention that they’ll monitor the health of Joe Milton III this week.
After getting first-team reps in Milton’s absence last week, Hendon Hooker went 17-for-25 with three touchdowns against the Golden Eagles.
Still, he and Harrison Bailey both missed on the same deep-play opportunities that plagued Milton in the first game-and-a-half.
Hooker, as mentioned Saturday, also provided the Vols’ lone turnover on a fumble that would have been a nice run — had he not ended up tumbling through the air.
“Some real positives,” said Heupel of Hooker. “(He was) decisive, accurate at times, did a good job using his feet at times, but the turnovers can’t happen. There were some plays in the pass game from in the pocket with wide receivers behind the secondary and not connecting on those. You have to, at some point, make those plays.”
And Tennessee will, according to Jones, despite a still muddy quarterback picture.
"I’m confident because when we go back and watch film, we make those plays all the time in practice,” he said Saturday. “I’m confident we’ll be clicking on all cylinders when we head down to Gainesville. No need to panic, we’re going to do what we do best. I have all the confidence in the world in my brothers, and I know they have all the confidence in the world in me, especially my quarterbacks who are all great guys.”
But Tennessee’s confidence and focus can’t just stem from the offensive side, or from its coaching staff, or from its starting lineup — at least not according to a linebacker who has stuck with the program through thick and thin.
“Just leading up to the game, we have to lock in more,” said Solon Page III. “We have to realize that it’s all about us. Everyone has to make sure that everybody is on their P’s and Q’s. Not just the ones, but also the two, threes and even those younger guys. We have to all make sure we are on each other and not leaving it all up to the coaches.”
“We determine our own destiny, our own fate,” added Jaylen McCollough. “When we play Tennessee football, we’re really tough to beat.”
Cover photo courtesy of Jake Nichols