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Tennessee football: Josh Heupel’s playing days helps Vols keep composure in tense situations

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When Hendon Hooker and Jabari Small fumbled an exchange that resulted in a defensive touchdown, Tennessee football didn’t panic. The Vols marched right back down the field and scored a game-tying touchdown.

That level of composure is a huge reason they were able to beat the Alabama Crimson Tide Saturday. It’s also a reflection of their head coach. Josh Heupel’s calm demeanor has poured into the team’s mentality.

“I think having played the position, playing quarterback, having been in a lot of different positions, understanding, I think, from being a kid to being a player, that your players are going to feel off of you way more than they listen to you,” Heupel said in his Monday press conference. “They feed off of your body language and your energy that you give off, so I try to be consistent and calm in those situations, hopefully keeping them calm in the storm, too.”

The difference was never more evident in that fumble. While Nick Saban became an internet sensation for losing his cool after his team muffed a punt in the first half, Heupel calmly went back to work after the Vols’ miscue.

Forgetting the previous play has been a huge focus of Heupel’s with his team. He specifically praised Hendon Hooker for being able to do that.

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“Great players and great quarterbacks have to be able to reset from one play to the next,” he said. “There’s no way you’re going to go out and play a perfect game. You have the ball in your hands all of the time. Eventually it probably doesn’t go your way.”

Indeed, Hooker was always there to respond after every mistake. On the Vols’ first possession after Alabama tied it up at 28 despite once trailing 28-10, Hooker threw a touchdown pass to Jalin Hyatt.

After Hooker threw an interception, the defense got a stop, and he threw another deep touchdown pass to Hyatt. He also directed that touchdown drive, which ended with another score to Hyatt, immediately after that fumble.

“The other night, his maturity, his understanding of the game allows him, when something isn’t perfect, it doesn’t go right, to understand the why behind it, which gives you the confidence and calmness to be able to go reset and play the next play,” Heupel said of Hooker. “There’s no doubt that his maturity and his confidence and his ability to reset also allows the 10 other guys around him and our entire offensive unit to do that as well. Can’t take that for granted.”

In addition to being former quarterback, Heupel is also the son of a coach. However, he said his father, Ken Heupel, was much more emotional on the sidelines but added that it might be because he was a defensive coach.

A huge part of the composure, though, is tuning out the media noise, and that’s where things might get tough now. It’s different for the Vols.

Up until last week, there was a lot of cautious optimism. Now, they are the hunted, and teams will be ready to pounce on them. Heupel’s job now is to keep the team having the same approach it’s been having.

“Obviously, from the outside looking in, everybody’s excited about the win,” he said. “From the inside, looking forward, we’ve got a lot of things that we have an opportunity to get a whole lot better at, and the challenge for us is to become our best.”

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