Vols Prepping For Majors Classic

Vols Preparing for “Tough and Physical” Pitt Team in Johnny Majors Classic

  • FootballSeptember 06, 2021

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Following a season-opening victory over Bowling Green last Thursday, Josh Heupel took to the podium on Monday afternoon to recap last week’s win and preview this weekend’s contest against Pittsburgh.

“A lot of things that were really positive that I talked about after the game, we got a chance to see on tape as a staff,” Heupel said. “Proud of a lot of the things our players did, most importantly playing with great effort and strain. I think you saw that in all three phases of the game. A lot of our players got an opportunity to see a lot of positives on tape, some things that we’ve got to get better at, but this a great opportunity to do that here (against Pittsburgh).

“The focus this week is on Pitt. It’s really on us correcting the things that we can control. Got to control our preparation, and that started for us this morning.”

While there were certainly lots of positives in UT’s 38-6 win over the Falcons last week, Heupel and the team know there is plenty of improvement that will need to be made in order to come away with a win this Saturday against a stout Pittsburgh team.

“There were some things that we obviously have to correct in the pass game,” Heupel said. “Everybody played a part in that. Quarterback having his eyes in the right spot and delivering the ball, wide receivers understanding what we’re asking them to do and being able to read coverage and sit in the right zone, finish it with a throw and a catch, accuracy or catching the football, and then a couple of busts in protection that we need to clean up so we can sit in the pocket and deliver it.”

“They’re a well-coached team in all three phases of the game,” Heupel said in regard to the Panthers, who are led by seventh-year head coach Pat Narduzzi.

“They’re going to be tough and physical – that’s out on the perimeter and that’s inside the core, too. So, you got to be tough, you got to have strain, you got to play with a physical presence.”

Johnny Majors Classic

When the Vols and Panthers meet at noon Saturday on ESPN, they will pay tribute to a shared gridiron icon as the two programs announced the game’s designation as the Johnny Majors Classic, named in honor of the late legendary head coach and player. UT and Pitt will reciprocate the event on Sept. 10, 2022, when they meet at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Majors served two tenures as head coach at Pitt, doing so from 1973-76 and 1993-96. He spent 16 seasons as head coach of his alma mater of Tennessee from 1977-92.

“It’s unique that Coach Majors had such a huge impact on both programs,” Heupel said. “As a player and a coach, his legacy lives on here at Tennessee. He’s a part of the foundation of who we are. He’s a cornerstone of it. I think it’s a fitting opportunity to pay tribute to him from both programs. It’s unique that you have a coach that is that instrumental in two different programs, and very few opportunities that you get a chance to recognize that with both teams playing.”

The video and full transcript from Monday’s press conference and player media availability can be seen below.

Heupel Monday Presser Full Transcript

Opening statement…

“Just finishing up last week. After the ball game I mentioned it, but it was a unique opportunity for our staff to get out (and recruit). Really the first opportunity we’ve had to go out and see people and places, and it was awesome to get out. The staff did a great job. Obviously, you could tell we were all over the place. Awesome way to start our recruiting here this year.

“Looking forward to this weekend, awesome opportunity to get back in front of Neyland (Stadium). I talked about the crowd last week, student body in particular, was just phenomenal. We’re looking forward to a great crowd this Saturday. I think it’s fitting that we get an opportunity to honor Coach (Johnny) Majors, just what he’s meant to both programs as well.

“A lot of things that were really positive that I talked about after the game, we got a chance to see on tape as a staff. Proud of a lot of the things our players did, most importantly playing with great effort and strain. I think you saw that in all three phases of the game. A lot of our players got an opportunity to see a lot of positives on tape, some things that we’ve got to get better at, but this a great opportunity to do that here (against Pittsburgh). The focus this week is on Pitt. It’s really on us correcting the things that we can control. Got to control our preparation, and that started for us this morning. With that, I’ll open it up to some questions.”

On what he saw on film that changed his initial impressions of the season opener…

“I think (watching film) reaffirmed the effort we were playing with and strain. I thought defensively, our first two levels in particular, d-line and linebackers, played with great effort and strain and played sideline to sideline. I think you saw that with a lot of individuals on our special teams. Collectively, we could be a lot better with all 11 playing with that type of effort, but a lot of positives. On special teams, a lot of young players in particular getting their first action.

“Offensively, I thought the front five and tight ends played extremely hard. There were some things that we obviously have to correct in the pass game. Everybody played a part in that. Quarterback having his eyes in the right spot and delivering the ball, wide receivers understanding what we’re asking them to do and being able to read coverage and sit in the right zone, finish it with a throw and a catch, accuracy or catching the football, and then a couple of busts in protection that we need to clean up so we can sit in the pocket and deliver it.

“When it looked good, all 11 were operating as one. When it didn’t, somebody was off. We’ve got to have great fundamentals and technique, learn from those things and get better this week. Certainly can do that.”

On recruits visiting for a Thursday night game…

“Thursday night’s tough for recruiting especially. You’ve got (high school) games that are coming up on Friday. A lot of them have things that they’re doing on Thursday nights, just as they’re preparing for a game. And then some are playing on Thursday night, too. So the combination of both, we weren’t able to have anybody in. Looking forward to us and our program being able to have guys in here this Saturday. It’ll be our first opportunity to really host guys here for a gameday environment.

On the importance of the Johnny Majors Classic…

“It’s unique that Coach Majors had such a huge impact on both programs. As a player and a coach, his legacy lives on here at Tennessee. He’s a part of the foundation of who we are. He’s a cornerstone of it. I think it’s a fitting opportunity to pay tribute to him from both programs. It’s unique that you have a coach that is that instrumental in two different programs, and very few opportunities that you get a chance to recognize that with both teams playing.”

On what changed over the course of the Bowling Green game for Joe Milton III

“A lot of it is simple execution. It’s him having eyes in the right spot, his feet being in the right position to be accurate with the football. There were a couple of times where we hit a receiver down the field and they’ve got to come up with the catch. Some things where wide receivers aren’t reading (the defense) the same way that he is. A couple things in protection where he’s scrambling. When it’s going good and it looks easy at times, it’s because all 11 are doing their job at a really high level. It takes one guy on the offensive side of the ball to put yourself in a position where you’re not executing at that level. There are things that we can control, that we can do to make sure that we perform at a higher level consistently.”

On the availability of OL Cooper Mays

“Cooper is in the building today and moving around. As the week unfolds, we’ll continue to get a better feel if he’ll be at 100 percent for kickoff.”

On OL Ollie Lane’s play at guard and OL Jerome Carvin after sliding over to play center…

“I thought Jerome sliding over – obviously (had) the holding calls – but other than that, executed and performed at a really high level inside, did a great job of communication, getting everybody on the same page. (There were) some different things we saw front structure wise from them (and) I thought he handled it pretty seamlessly. Ollie did some really positive things. Couple of the pin pulls where he’s out in space, did a good job getting up on the second level. Thought he handled himself really well.”

On if he expects WR Jimmy Calloway back this week…

“Yeah, we do expect Jimmy to be back.”

On the number of guys that played on the defensive line vs. Bowling Green…

“Going in, I felt like we would rotate. Give or take a couple of guys in that rotation, you’re going to see a steady dose of guys rotating, being able to be fresh and play extremely hard.”

On having to get things corrected in the passing game and if that’s common in a new system…

“You don’t want it to be that way. You want to go out and execute. The second half of that ball game is probably as poorly as we’ve executed since we started training camp … for whatever reason. We can get back and execute the way we did early in the football game.”

On the challenge of going up against a Pat Narduzzi coached defense, particularly what they do in the secondary…

“You’re going to see a bunch of man-press based out of quarters, but they’ll play multiple coverages out of it. They’re a well-coached team in all three phases of the game. They’re going to be tough and physical – that’s out on the perimeter and that’s inside the core, too. So, you got to be tough, you got to have strain, you got to play with a physical presence. That’s going to be important for us out on the perimeter, it’ll be true for the guys in the core, too.”

On how he would rate the physicality of his wide receivers through camp and game one…

“Those guys are tough (and) physical. We put them in those situations every single day. I anticipate them to play with a great competitive edge on Saturday afternoon.”

On preparing for a Pitt defense that gets after the quarterback effectively…

“They (Pitt) lost a couple of elite players off the edge from last year’s defense. They still got a bunch of guys that get after the quarterback. They do that in base down, first and second (down), third down. (They) have multiple schemes to try and mess with your protections and create matchups where they can get after the quarterback. You got to do a great job of chewing up yards (on early downs). You don’t want to be in third and long on these guys. At the same time, first or second down, up between their front four and pressures that they bring, you got to do a great job of protecting the quarterback.”

On rotating the linebackers…

“I think you’ll see some rotation of our second-level guys throughout the course of the season because they’ve earned the right to go out there and play. I thought they played well the other night. I thought the two guys that started, Jeremy (Banks) and Juwan (Mitchell) were great the other night. (They’re) guys that we recognized inside the team room just playing with great effort and strain. They flew around, played sideline to sideline, were great in their communication between the third level and first level, too.”

On his reaction to seeing McKenzie Milton return and play for FSU last night…

“I got home and turned the ball game on late in the third and went to bed early in fourth, woke up to a barrage of text messages from a bunch of buddies, so this morning I just tried to find the highlights. Unbelievable story. Only him can do what he’s done over the last three years – coming back from in the early hours of that injury, just hoping that he was going to be able to keep his leg to a two and a half to three-year rehab process to get back. It started with just wanting to be able to have a normal, functioning leg, and have a normal life to now becoming a guy that can go play. You can see last night, he’s back to doing the things that he’s able to do. He’s special. Inside the white lines, he’s got great command, great presence, and has unbelievable play-making ability, and you guys saw that last night. It’s special, unbelievable to see him and be able to watch.”

On continuing closed practices…

“Really, the two things that you guys are used to, it’s just the practice pressure of what we do and how we start our practices during the course of the season. We’re into some scheme things right away so that’s really the reason why.”

On how much General Neyland’s Game Maxims are incorporated into his program… 

“We read the maxims before every game. Our players see them, it’s in our building, they walk by them every single day. Since I got here, I tried to understand what the players felt like are important traditions and history of Tennessee football, that was one of the things they mentioned right away. It’s why we continue to say it in the locker room, they live it, they breathe it, it’s important to the culture of Tennessee football.”

On Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett and their offense…

“I couldn’t believe he is still around, he’s been there forever. He has continued to grow as a playmaker from the first time that I’ve seen him. He has great command and understanding of what they’re doing and is a really good decision maker. He’s got the ability to make plays too, uniquely able to extend and create plays. They put a ton of pressure on him, and when I say that, they put the ball in his hands a bunch and trust him. You see him play at a really high level.”

On  DB Theo Jackson… 

“We expect him to play at a really high level because of who he is inside of our program. How he interacts with his teammates, how he competes every day, that’s why he was a team captain on Thursday night. We expect that high level, that’s how he has performed and really grown since we’ve gotten here. He’s got a great understanding of what we’re trying to do defensively, what his job is and the job of the guys around him, as well as.”

On what stood out on special teams…

“I think some of our young guys flying around, whether it was kickoff or punt, just playing with effort, technique and strain, some of the things we’ve talked about since the first day we started in spring ball. Got a chance to see a lot of those things show up on tape. That effort and technique, those are things that correlate to the offensive and defensive side of the ball as well, so for a lot of young guys it starts right there. Saw a lot of guys play really well.”

On the evaluation of the running backs on Thursday…

“I thought as the night went on, they did a really good job of some of the scheme changes (Bowling Green) made, we adjusted to. At the running back position I thought we did a really good job of pressing the line of scrimmage and delivering second level blocks to some of our combinations, whether it’s a center and a guard, or a guard and a tackle. I thought they bounced it well when it was right to bounce it, they didn’t just look to bounce it. I thought they finished the runs really well, trying to get plus-two out of it. Majority of the night, ball security, getting pad on their pad, arm-bar, two hands on the football, I thought they did a really good job of it.”

On freshman RB Jaylen Wright

“First time in a ballgame under the lights, he’s been phenomenal during training camp , expecting him to play at a really high level. He bounced a couple of the runs, unique structure to a couple of the schemes he ran were different than what we prepared for, but expecting him to have a big game on Saturday.”

On the differences in kickoff times and if he has a preference… 

“For our players, I don’t really think it matters, it’s about being prepared and ready to play when it’s time to kick off. If you ask most players and coaches, they would prefer to play early because you get to go to bed, wake up, and the game is on you. You’re not sitting around in a hotel all day with anticipation. For the players, they get a chance to enjoy their families after the ballgame and kind of decompress and enjoy the moment.”

Player Quotes

Senior DB Alontae Taylor

On the fun and energy of preseason camp translating to the season opener against Bowling Green…

“A lot of guys were excited. Like I said before, seeing the Vol Walk and having the traditional things back, having the fan base there, having our families there, I feel like that was the fun part of it. The coaching staff was really great on the sidelines. When things weren’t going the right way, we had a good communication style as far as on the sideline, getting the right corrections so we can go out and execute the next series.”

On what challenges are presented by Pittsburgh from his perspective…

“Watching film on Pitt and watching them play against UMass … their coaching staff has been there a long time, great quarterback like you said. They do good what they do. We just have to make sure that we game plan the right way, make sure we hone in on the details. We had a pretty long break here before we play Pitt, so getting in the film room early, being able to nitpick at certain things and ask a lot of questions today, so we’ll come in tomorrow as we get ready for practice and get our game plan ready. We’ll just do what we’re supposed to do. I feel like if we execute our game plan, we’ll have the best chance to win.”

On keeping Bowling Green out of the endzone…

“Any defensive team wants to keep every team out of the endzone and have a big old doughnut up there with zero points, right? But we gave them two opportunities to kick field goals where they drove the field on us, and they got big chunks (of yardage) in the game. I feel like if we kept our composure and executed a little bit better, we could’ve had a big zero at the end of the game.”

Sophomore DL Tyler Baron

On what stands out about Pitt’s offense…

“On their offensive line, they have a lot of great, experienced guys. Like I said, Kenny Pickett. They are a very good team. I think it is going to be a good matchup. They give us a lot of tough stuff, we’ve just got to be able to match up with it correctly.”

On taking the role as a leader on defense…

“Being a leader in our scheme and our locker room is really easy because everybody has bought into the program. It’s not like we have just one individual leading, I feel like everybody on our team is a leader. We’re all helping each other be better and go head to head. Iron sharpens iron.”

On experiencing the pregame traditions of Tennessee football…

“It was awesome, it was a great experience. I’ve seen them all growing up but being a part of it was unreal. Something I will never forget.”

On Rodney Garner‘s coaching…

“With Coach Garner coming, I think everyone is going to take a big step. He’s arguably one of the better coaches in the country, I give a lot of credit to him, just helping us all develop and become better players in every aspect.”

Redshirt Senior DL Caleb Tremblay

On his first game in Neyland…

“It was amazing. Had a lot of fun, the energy was there, the fans were unbelievable. They were so engaged, I was a little nervous at first. Last year was the COVID year, and we couldn’t really have any fans. The energy was great. I loved it.”

On the preparation for gamedays during the week…

“I felt like we did a great job with preparation in practice and that’s one of the big things. We make practice hard so come gameday, you’re really comfortable and it’s almost easy. I would say for most of our d-line and our defense, we are really comfortable out there because we practice so hard.”

On rotating players in and out on the line…

“The benefits of rotating, you know, even if you are the best player in the world, you’re going to get tired after a certain amount of plays. Rotating keeps everyone fresh. Not only in that individual series but in the fourth quarter, you’re going to get your best.”

On running through the T pregame…

“It was a cool experience, my family was right there, they got a video of me running out and giving them a high-five. It was definitely a cool experience, seeing that tradition.”

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