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Tennessee Football Notebook: Vols draw strong reviews from Josh Heupel

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Tennessee coach Josh Heupel hasn’t built a championship program in Knoxville just yet. However, he’s not shy about saying he’s built a respectable one.

“It’s dramatically different than we were in Year One,” Heupel said referring to his first season as the Vols’ head coach in 2021 when the transfer portal had robbed Tennessee’s football team of dozens of players. “You just look at the depth of our roster, the length, the size, the ability to bend up front in particular, the athleticism, the ability to move out in space with the skill guys. It’s dramatically different.”

It’s the depth that stands out the most. Heupel and the media have joked that some reporters could have lined up at linebacker during practice in his first season. There won’t be any scribes taking snaps during this year’s preseason camp.

“There’s real players at all levels that we certainly didn’t have early in my tenure here,” Heupel said.

Few coaches have come out and said that their team had a lousy first practice, although Heupel said he has seen a few. Also, the Vols aren’t yet in full pads so no ironclad determination has or will be made anytime soon. However, that doesn’t mean that Heupel’s players aren’t expected to be up to speed, even freshmen who enrolled earlier this year.

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“The guys that have been in our program, that’s freshmen as well, I thought you could see retain and execute at a high level, better fundamentally,” Heupel said of the Vols first practice on Wednesday.

Tackle Talk

Heupel was non-committal when asked about the Vols’ right tackle position. Jeremiah Crawford and Gerald Mincey are competing for that starting position. Mincey is considered more talented and athletic. However, Crawford has stayed in the competition thanks to his tenaciousness and attention to detail.

“We’ll see where that ends up at the end of training camp,” Heupel said of the two players who split time last season at left tackle.

Tight End Talk

Emmanuel Okoye is already being noticed thanks to his athleticism. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound prospect is beginning his career at tight end after being a part of the NFL Academy in the United Kingdom last year.

“He was a great basketball player too,” Heupel said. “We got to see some of his footage and his athletic traits. We watched his hands on the basketball court too and felt like it would transition over. 

Heupel was quick to remind the media that Okoye still has to catch up to the competition in the U.S. even though he was the No. 1 prospect in England.

“He’s got a long, great football journey ahead of him,” Heupel said. “Today was Day One. you think about where he was 12 months ago and where he is today. It’s a drastic difference in the competition. Excited about him because he’s urgent. He cares.”

Hot Hands

Looking for the best set of hands among Tennessee’s receivers? This one might surprise you considering the potential stars that the Vols have at the position. Receiver Squirrel White said freshman Nathan Leacock is leading the Vols on the catch chart from UT’s Jugs machine, which simulates rapid-fire passes to players.

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