By TERESA M. WALKER – AP Sports Writer
The Tennessee Volunteers say they know what they’re doing and exactly what they want from coach Josh Heupel’s second season.
What they want is more wins – and Heupel thinks they know how to achieve that goal.
“There’s a lot of confidence and belief in what we’re doing,” Heupel said. “There are clear lines of communication. They understand the standards and expectations. They are able to go out and compete.
The Volunteers went 7-6 in Heupel’s first season, a big rebound after going 3-7 with a Southeastern Conference roster. It was Jeremy Pruitt’s final season before his firing and subsequent NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting issues that led to 18 major rule violations.
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Heupel has his starting quarterback, best wide receiver and best running back to run one of the fastest offenses in Division I averaging 2.99 plays per minute while setting eight program records in a season. Even better, the coach said they were much more comfortable playing fast.
Tennessee still faces NCAA punishment. Volunteers chose to play in a bowling game last season after cutting 12 scholarships as self-imposed punishment. Heupel said they have been very open with current players and rookies.
“We’ve positioned ourselves extremely well to swallow things early and be able to compete for championships as we go forward,” Heupel said.
The Vols have a coveted quarterback room: Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton are a pair of experienced players at the top of the QB depth chart. Hooker came off the bench last season to set program records for a passing efficiency of 181.4 and a completion percentage of 68%. He threw for 31 touchdowns with just three interceptions.
Milton, who lost the starting job to Hooker as a redshirt junior, returned rather than being traded again. They can help freshman tutor Tayven Jackson, and Hooker is much more relaxed going into his sixth season overall and his second with the Vols.
Hooker picked up receiver Cedric Tillman after catching 64 passes for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Tillman finished the season setting a school record with a TD assist in the final seven games. Jabari Small led the team with 796 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.
The Vols also fire four of five starters on the line and eight overall for an offense that set school records with 511 points and 6,174 total yards. They averaged 39.3 points per game – seventh nationally.
Defensive tackle Matthew Butler is now in the NFL with the Las Vegas Raiders. But defensive lineman Byron Young and linebacker Jeremy Banks are among the seven returning starters. Young and Banks are tied for the team lead with 5 1/2 sacks and 11 1/2 tackles for loss each.
Banks finished second in the SEC and tied for seventh nationally with 128 total tackles.
One area Tennessee needs to improve on this season is scoring in the second quarter. The Vols began to quickly beat their opponents 190-51 in the first 15 minutes to lead 12 of 13 games. Once they switched sides, they found themselves outscored 143-109, including a 16-0 difference in their Music City Bowl loss to Purdue in December.
The Volunteers open the season in prime time on September 1 by hosting Ball State. They also host Akron, Florida, Alabama, Kentucky and Missouri at Neyland Stadium where they sold 58,871 season tickets with cheering fans for Heupel’s second season.
Tennessee has a tough road trip on Sept. 10 visiting Pittsburgh. The Vols also visit LSU on October 8 and national champion Georgia on November 5. It’s part of a tough finale as the Vols face three road games in the past month, including trips to South Carolina ahead of the regular-season finale at Vanderbilt on Nov. 11. 26.
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