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Tennessee Football: Avoiding interceptions is becoming a Tennessee Tradition for the Vols

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Tennessee coach Josh Heupel understandably had no complaints about his quarterback play following the Vols’ season-opener.

In his second time as a starter, senior Joe Milton completed 21-of-30 passes for 201 yards, two touchdowns and, perhaps most importantly, no interceptions as the Vols pounded Virginia 49-13.

“I thought during the course of the ball game, on the video too, thought the decision-making, where his eyes were at was really solid throughout the course of the football game,” Heupel said on Monday during his weekly press conference when asked about Milton.

When it comes to protecting the football and avoiding interceptions, Milton’s performance is nothing new recently at Tennessee. Under Heupel, Tennessee has only had a quarterback throw three interceptions in each of the last two seasons. That was tied for best in the NCAA last season and second in 2021.

“It starts with very small details, but what we do all offseason, understanding our schemes, being solid in their decision-making – based off the defensive structure – the time that we spend on defensive structures and then the fundamentals of playing the position,” Heupel said when asked how his offense avoids picks. “You put all that together, you should be in a good position to take care of the football.”

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In Tennessee’s offense, it isn’t just a quarterback that can be responsible for an interception. Receivers can run the wrong routes off of a defensive read meaning an errant pass can be their fault and end up in an opposing team’s hands. The Vols’ receivers were good at their craft on Saturday, but they can be better.

“We can be a little bit cleaner,” Heupel. “All in all, I thought they performed well. There’s some things early in the football game that everybody saw that we weren’t quite in sync.”

One example of a receiver miscue occurred when senior receiver Ramel Keyton dropped what would have been an 80-yard touchdown pass in the first half. Otherwise, the Vols’ receivers turned in another strong game, which has become commonplace under Heupel. The Vols will face Austin Peay on Saturday in Neyland Stadium’s home opener.

“Defensively gotta handle tempo,” Heupel said. “They’ll spread the football field, RPO game. We gotta do a really good job on perimeter screens, defeat blocks and make tackles in space. Line of scrimmage will be everything for us. Offensively, going to have to have balance and be able to run football and throw football directly down field off of all that that. Nothing different than who we are. 

“Special teams, got a chance to take another step this week with some really positive things. I think we had 13 freshmen that were playing on teams. Thought they did a really nice job. There’s another step for those guys, obviously as young as they’re in their career, but our specialists, there’s some really good things. Just have to be more consistent.”

Punting was an issue on Saturday as the Vols struggled to pin Virginia deep when the Vols had to punt. Tennessee also had two kickoffs sail out of bounds, which is a procedure penalty, and places the ball at the 35-yard line.

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