Quotes: Assistants & Players – Play-Making Vols Excited for Neyland Night Showdown with Rebels

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee was back flying around on Haslam Field on Tuesday morning as excitement continues to build for Saturday night’s highly-anticipated showdown with Ole Miss at Neyland Stadium.

On Monday evening, UT announced that it would “Checker Neyland” for Saturday’s game against the Rebels, marking the first time since playing Georgia back in 2017.

Vols WR JaVonta Payton / Credit: UT Athletics

In terms of game preparation, the Big Orange know they will need to execute at a high level on both sides of the ball against a fast-paced and talented Ole Miss team that enters the game ranked first in the SEC and fourth nationally in scoring offense (46.2 ppg).

When speaking with the media on Tuesday, linebackers’ coach Brian Jean-Mary noted that practicing against Tennessee’s up-tempo offense in the offseason would be advantageous for the Vols’ defense this week, but also pointed out that there are a lot of differences within the Rebels’ offense that they will need to be ready for, as well.

“There is a lot of carryover obviously from going against our offense in the spring and fall camp. We feel like we should be prepared for the tempo, but it’s always a different animal when you have to go against it in a game,” Jean-Mary said. “There are a lot of similarities, but there are some major differences also just in the way that they run the ball and some of the pass game.
 
“The tempo is similar, but they have their kind of go-to plays and we have our own on offense, so we have to do a good job of separating what we’ve done against our offense compared to what Ole Miss (does), how they attack people.”
 
Offensively, the playmaking ability of Tennessee’s more experienced receivers has played a major part in the team’s high-scoring efforts the past two weeks.
 
Wide receivers coach Kodi Burns was quick to praise the play of veteran wideouts like Velus Jones Jr.JaVonta Payton and Cedric Tillman, but also stressed that it’ll be important for UT’s younger receivers to continue to develop and be ready when their opportunities come.
 
“You talk about getting into SEC play, one thing that I do know about the SEC, it’s a big boy league and you really want to go with experience, and we’ve done that the last few weeks. I think it’s paid off,” Burns said. “At the same time, those young guys get a chance to still play a little bit and truly grow, and they’re going to be good players. You just have to make sure to seize the opportunity when your time is called.”
 
The Vols’ contest with the Rebels kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and will be broadcast on the SEC Network. Fans are encouraged to arrive early in order to be in their seats for the pregame lights show and kickoff.
 
Full transcripts for coach Jean-Mary and coach Burns and select player quotes can be seen below.

Linebackers Coach Brian Jean-Mary Transcript

 On Juwan Mitchell being out and what his plan is going forward and if he has spoken with him…
“We speak to each other every day. Obviously, it’s a loss, what I stated earlier he’s been banged up basically since we started camp, so we try to, obviously, rotate to keep some of the pounding off of him but it kind of got to a point of no return, so we tried to decide what was best for Juwan and went had the surgery. Obviously, it’s a loss, he was one of my more experienced (guys) but, you know, he was basically playing with one arm. Trying to obviously do the best he could for the program, but at the end of the day I think we were going to hurt the program, hurt ourselves on defense, and possibly (get) in worse of situations. So, happy he got it done, wish he was still a part, but he’s in good spirits and knows it’s going to be a long road back. I think he understands this is going to make him even better next year going forward.”
 
On initial impressions of Aaron Beasley and what he likes that he is doing now…
“Well, I was familiar with Aaron from high school, I know he played a lot of running back. I know he was an athletic kid coming out of high school, so, you know, I had a little bit of knowledge about him. When he was in spring, I thought he did a good job. We asked him to move to a different position, which was a little different for him, I’m looking for the best word to say because he was more of a MIKE. he was a backup, and we asked him to play WILL actually in spring because Jeremy Banks wasn’t available. So, you know, he kind of jumped into that and, just through progression because of the way the numbers worked out, we had to move him to MIKE this fall. He’s a kid that thinks his best football is still ahead of him. I tell you that because he’s had to play basically all three linebacker spots for us when we do play our base defense and do have our three linebackers on the field. He’s also the SAM, so he’s one of the guys we count on as far as getting us lined up, and he’s one of the few veteran guys, if we can even call him that, that has a little bit of game experience. He really helps us keep us on task and keeps us where we feel like he gives us the best chance on defense.”
 
On what Beasley is excelling at right now…
“Making tackles, like I said, I tell that story, I think in his own way he does provide a little bit of leadership. He’s not a big talker but he’s more of a calm influence for our room and probably for the defense because of his personality. I think that is the biggest factor, doesn’t get flustered and kind of doesn’t get out of sorts when things aren’t going well. I think we need that at times. Like I said, he’s made plays when they presented themselves and he’s done a good job there. I would say his number one, probably, thing that he is doing the best is keeping us calm and providing some leadership.”
 
On who the fourth linebacker in the rotation would be…
“It’s still up in the air. As we did before Juwan (Mitchell), we’re rotating guys and we want to make sure we put the guy in that’s going to give us the best chance to win. Whether that be Aaron Willis, whether that be (Kwauze) Pakk Garland or William Mohan. All three of those guys are kind of all rotating, all practicing well. If that situation did present itself, I feel like all three of those guys would give us an opportunity to win, but I don’t think any one of them has separated themselves to be that fourth linebacker that we would put in definitely.”
 
On if he feels like they need a fourth guy given how well the top three are playing…
“It’s the SEC, in one play you could go from three to two. The goal is always to have five (guys) ready to play just because of the nature of injuries, especially with the collisions that you’re going to have in this conference. We rotated three on Saturday down from four, but we always want to have those guys prepared to play. The last thing you want to do is get caught were you might have one or two guys go down. I’ve been in games where we’ve had three guys go down in one game and the opponent, they don’t care, they’re going to go attack the weakness. So, you want to make sure you have guys that are at least serviceable that can go out there and run the defense and can give you the best chance to win.”
 
On how he’s seen Jeremy Banks progress and keeping him from committing penalties…
“The personal fouls, which we’ve talked about … it has to go away. We basically stated, if the personal fouls don’t go away, we can’t put him in the game. Those are going to be the difference when we’re in tighter games and we just can’t do that. Those 15-yard penalties lead to scoring drives and really take the momentum away from us. So, we have to eliminate those. Besides that, I think he’s been a little bit more under control as far as making tackles, breaking down and being in good balance. The one thing with Jeremy, he’s going to play hard but sometimes when he plays hard, he’s a little out of control and kind of out of whack where he ends up on the ground a lot. I think he’s been better at that the last couple weeks.”
 
On Brandon Turnage winning SEC Player of the Week after not playing much early in the year…
“I can’t say it surprises me. Well, I’m going to take that back, of course it surprised me, but I’ve seen the kid, I’ve seen the work ethic he’s put in. One of the guys I think is one of the unsung heroes – Theo Jackson knew he wasn’t going to play or there was a good chance he wasn’t – he worked with Brandon every day and every night. Watched film with him and really helped prep him. That’s when you know you have good teamwork and you have a brotherhood on your team because Theo knew how much we were going to need him this game if he didn’t play. I have to give Theo a lot of credit. But Brandon is a very talented kid, and we always say, when your opportunity comes, you never know when it’s going to come so make sure you stay prepared. Brandon was a great example about that. So, to answer your question, I was surprised, but I wasn’t surprised.”
 
On the advantage of practicing against the kind of tempo Ole Miss runs on a daily basis…
“Yeah, there is a lot of carryover obviously from going against our offense in spring and fall camp. We feel like we should be prepared for the tempo, but it’s always a different animal when you have to go against it in a game. There are a lot of similarities, but there are some major differences also just in the way that they run the ball and some of the pass game. The tempo is similar, but they have their kind of go-to plays and we have our own on offense, so we have to do a good job of separating what we’ve done against our offense compared to what Ole Miss (does), how they attack people.”

On Matt Corral’s abilities stressing the defense…
“It’s unbelievable stress on the defense. Watching him, I know he gets a lot of praise in the media and coverage for the way he plays, but when you watch him on the coach’s tape, it’s well deserved. He is a complete quarterback, doesn’t make any mistakes, doesn’t have any interceptions this year which tells how much he is taking care of the football. He makes the right reads and he is a super athletic kid. I think there was a play we watched versus Arkansas where he runs through an arm tackle of one of Arkansas’ better defenders. It tells you about his athleticism and is super impressive throwing the ball, so we know we have our work cut out for us.”

On tackling drills in practice during the season…
“We handle a lot of the full-speed tackling, mainly, individually. Going into game seven, we have to be careful about tackling each other, just because of the nature of injuries and a lot of guys are banged up. We definitely still make that a big point of emphasis, tackling. A lot of thud tackles, where we’re going to coach them up to make sure they’re in the proper position, wrapping up, feet, and that the body is in the proper position. It’s hard to go full-speed, live tackling at this point, just because of our numbers. Like you said, we want to make sure we stay away from injuries. But it’s still a big point of emphasis, that is still the basis of everything we do on defense.”

On the play of linebackers in coverage and in space…
“I think we’re getting better. Obviously, we have gotten our hands on a couple of balls the last couple of weeks. It can always be better. When you ask those questions, I always think of the ones we do wrong, but I have to catch myself and say we were in position probably a couple of times the last couple games. A lot better than we were earlier. I think we are getting better, obviously, we are very multiple on defense so the stress a lot of times is on the linebackers, as far as the play action passes and with the tight ends and the backs coming out of the backfield. So, we have to do a great job and be disciplined in our pass drops, but I feel like we’ve gotten a lot better over the last couple of weeks. We really haven’t changed what we’ve done, the linebackers have just been a lot better. This week will be a big-time challenge. They do a great job of getting the ball to the tailbacks out of the backfield and throwing the ball to the tight ends.

On feeding off the energy and momentum of the offense…
“That’s the way this team has been structured since the first day coach Heupel got here. We are together as a team, he says ‘it’s one’. When the defense is going well, the offense is going to feed off of it because we are getting the ball back to them. When the offense is going well, and they’re scoring points, the defense is going to feed off of it because now they know that offense we are going against is going to have to speed up what they’re doing. They have the stress of trying to score it to match us on offense. We add special teams to that also. When those guys are flying down on kickoffs and punts and getting big returns on kickoff and punt, it energizes the entire team. That’s how this team is structured, you can really see guys starting to buy in to what coach Heupel and our staff envisions because It is truly a team. I’m not saying it’s an aspect they didn’t have before, but you can see it growing. Just sitting on the sidelines when we are trying to draw defensive plays, their eyes are on the jumbotron because they know something good is about to happen. You listen to the offensive coaches and they say the same thing as far as, when the defense is on the field, they have a hard time keeping their guys focused on what they are trying to adjust because their guys are so excited about what’s going on. I’s a good feeling, obviously we want them to still focus on our adjustments on the sideline, but you can tell they are really enjoying what we’re doing.”
 

Wide Receivers Coach Kodi Burns Transcript

On if Velus Jones moving to the slot gave him more confidence and what makes him so hard to tackle…
“Confidence for Velus is not an issue, at all. He really does believe he’s good and he is a really good player. A veteran guy that you can move from outside to inside, like I spoke about earlier in the spring and summer as well. He’s been very productive in the slot, and like you said, he’s almost like a running back with the ball in his hands. He’s really hard to tackle. He’s strong, he plays through contact, he has really good ball skills. Once again, just a veteran guy who’s played a lot of football, and really excited to see his role continue to grow and build.”
 
On the emergence of the veteran receivers this year…
“For sure. I think a lot of times you just have to have an opportunity and a chance. I think (Cedric) Tillman – I heard a crazy stat – I think he’s been here three years and only had eight receptions up until this year. You just see his growth and instill confidence in Tillman – and he was a guy I’ve been talking about since the spring – that he could be problem for defenses. Whenever you’re that big, you can run and have good ball skills, he’s a good player. I think it just came down to him getting reps, time on task in games and he’s a confident player right now. JaVonta Payton, another guy that was at another school, didn’t really get the opportunities that he wanted to. Now, just instilling confidence into him, that’s why I recruited the kid. I thought he was a good player, good ball skills, explosive, can run. He just needed that opportunity, and he has it, and he sees the moment. You see him each week, I think he’s scored a touchdown in the last four games, so he’s a really good player and starting to improve every single week. Really excited about these veteran guys.”
 
On what role the younger receivers have played the last couple weeks and what led to pairing down the amount of reps for receivers since SEC play…
“We have some talented young players that have to really grow up. It’s all about an opportunity. When those guys get the opportunity to play, you have to capitalize. I think you saw Jalin Hyatt do that this past game. And then really, you talk about getting into SEC play, one thing that I do know about the SEC, it’s a big boy league and you really want to go with experience, and we’ve done that the last few weeks. I think it’s paid off. At the same time, those young guys get a chance to still play a little bit and truly grow, and they’re going to be good players. You just have to make sure to seize the opportunity when your time is called.”
 
On JaVonta Payton’s early success in games then lack of touches after and the importance of Jalin Hyatt’s touchdown catch after early season struggles…
“JaVonta early in games, obviously has made some big-time plays. Every game just transpires different. I think the last couple games the ball was really pushed more to (Cedric) Tillman, which is fine. Tillman was making plays. Then JaVonta, these last six or seven weeks, very well could be him being the guy. So, you just have to be ready when the opportunity presents itself and I think he will be. I think you’ll continue to see JaVonta make plays and not just a one touchdown deal and kind of goes missing. We’re going to try and find ways to get him the ball because he’s a really good player. Then you talk about Jalin Hyatt, the few drops he had early in the season, just really have to work on his ball skills and grip strength. I think that you see him growing because that catch in the end zone is not something that a normal, every single day receiver makes. You have to really work on those things, and he’s put that extra work in as far as working on his ball skills and making those competitive catches. That’s one thing about this league, in the SEC you have to be able to make competitive catches and if he continues to do that, he’s the fastest guy we have on the team, so it will be very, very hard to cover.”
 
On how quick it took to see that JaVonta Payton was a guy that could play well for this team…
“Not very long. Part of the reason we recruited him was because I saw a skillset. I saw an explosive player with really good ball skills that was twitchy and can really run. One thing that we like in this offense is we like receivers that can run and really blow the top of the coverage. I think you’ve seen that in these games, all of his touchdowns have been big, big plays where he’s getting behind the defense. So, it didn’t take long when he stepped on campus to know JaVonta can be a big-time playmaker for us, and he’s done that so far. So, it’s our job to put him in positions to continue to do that.”
 
On the chemistry between Hendon Hooker and the receivers since taking over at quarterback…
“That’s what it comes down to. It’s time on task, it’s chemistry like you talked about, being able to get those one reps with the one receivers, the guys that you’re actually going to play with, because everyone runs different. His ball is different than the other quarterbacks. It’s all about the reps, and I think it’s really starting to show and really pay off as far as us in the passing game being able to hit those timing throws and some of those shots down the field. I think that is really the difference in the season. Early on, we weren’t making the big plays down the field, we weren’t hitting those shots, and now we’ve really hit those shots. It’s opened up games, it’s opened up big leads early in games where you can kind of relax and continue to play football without the stress we’ve had in some of the games.”
 
On importance of getting off to a quick start and what it does for the mentality of the players…
“I believe that the quick starts here at Tennessee has not been successful in the past years, and really what you want to do is get off to quick starts to get guys confident. You want to make sure early in the season that we instilled in our players that we’re going to get off to a quick start, be able to score points, and it’s not the same old story where ‘oh here we go again.’ I think we’re really starting to feed off of that. The defense is off to a quick start, the offense is playing, and we’re really starting to put four quarters together as a team. I think that is what it’s all about, us coming together as a team, us scoring points on offense, and defense coming up with some big time TFLs.”
 
On what it says about the stamina of the top three receivers running in this offense and if they track how much their receivers run…
“We track how much our guys run in practice every single day. We track how much they run in a game, and I think it just speaks to what we do offensively, how we play up tempo, that’s how we practice and that’s what we do and who we are. So, when you get into a game, some of those guys are getting upwards to 70 or 80 reps, it’s not a problem and they get stronger as the game continues to go because that’s what we do, that’s who we are and that’s our identity on offense. I’ve been very impressed with the way they’ve preformed so far. Obviously, it’s a long season and we have to continue to stay healthy, but I think we are going to continue to get better and play better on the backend of games.”
 
On Hendon Hooker’s play allowing the coaches to be able to evaluate the receiver room…
“For sure, you always want the receivers be given an opportunity to make a play. As we all know, I believe in if the ball touches your hands, you need to catch the ball and we’ve been given those opportunities and I think for the most part we’ve made the big time plays down the field. And like you said, it gives you an opportunity to see where you are in the receiver room and when those guys’ numbers get called, they have made plays, and hopefully we can continue to do that.”
 
On preventing the team from relaxing during the second half of the game…
“I think just continuing to be aggressive. Our style of offense is up tempo, we play fast and whenever you get those big leads, it’s an easy tendency to kind of slow it down and run the clock out a little bit, but we are an aggressive offense, and we are going to stay aggressive. Like coach Heupel talked about, it’s one or two guys on every play that can really be the difference in us continuing to move the ball on those drives, so it comes down to a lack of focus and a lack of execution in those moments and we cannot relax to be able to push through.”
 
On Hendon Hooker’s progression and what he has seen from him..
“Tell you what, Hendon, a phenomenal quarterback, great competitor. What I see more than anything with Hendon is the moment is not too big. He sits in the pocket and the guy gets beat up, and he runs the ball 15, 20 times a game and he is really the toughest guy on the field. That’s what you want to see from a quarterback, that guys have confidence in him. That when you sit in the pocket and take hits like he does, and you’re still able to complete balls down the field, that’s big time on his part. We got confidence in whoever the quarterback is and obviously Hendon has taken the bull by the horns the last two weeks. (I’ve) been extremely excited or him. Great kid, phenomenal, humble competitor and it shows up on game day.”
 

Player Quotes

JaVonta Payton – WR – Senior
 
On Jaylin Hyatt’s catch for TD…
“Extremely happy, as you could see. I was right behind him when he scored and especially with him being from South Carolina, it was big for him. All my guys getting into the end zone, I’m extremely excited to see them guys get yards, get touchdowns and have all the fans happy. It’s a great feeling.”
 
On moving forward and building chemistry with Hendon Hooker
“It’s just a lot of repetition in practice, doing the same thing over and over again. Going our scheme, just trying to execute the small things, do the little things, making sure we are getting the right dips, running the right routes. It’s just about those things.”
 
On playing big games against Ole Miss before…
“It’s feels pretty much the same, even though it’s different playing, they called it the ‘Egg Bowl’ back at Mississippi State. You know, Ole Miss has a very talented team. Coming into this game it’s just the same mindset. You got to go out there and be ready to do everything you can to come out with the win. Like I said they have a very great team, so it’s going to be a very competitive game.”


Ja’Quain Blakely – DL – Redshirt Senior

On how the defensive line can get more sacks…
“Just keep rushing. Keep pushing the pocket, just keep doing what we’re doing to a higher standard. I mean sacks come once in a blue moon, so you just got to get there and keep working.”

On Brandon Turnage’s performance Saturday…
“Man, I was so proud of him. Him and Theo Jackson worked very hard this last week on getting him ready and prepared for that game and, man, for him to go out there and show out like that, I was very proud. I mean as a (new) guy in your first start, you know, big game, hostile environment, it’s very impressive when you can go out and have 14 tackles and have a day like he did.”

On if he’s playing his best football right now…
“I wouldn’t say I’m playing the best of my career. I feel like I’m playing pretty good, but I feel like the moral of my success is my brothers and what we do. We work as a unit. I mean, one person does their job, everybody does their job.”

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