Heupel & Players Quotes: Vols Ready to Finish Regular Season Strong on Senior Day

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee will look to cap the regular season off with a win on Saturday as the Vols host in-state rival Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium for Senior Day on Saturday afternoon.

Head coach Josh Heupel talked about the impact that this year’s senior class has had on the program during his short time in Knoxville, noting their ability face adversity head on and help lay the foundation for the future.

“Facing adversity and running right into it. Never losing faith and just continuing to compete and grow,” Heupel said when asked what he appreciated most of this year’s senior class.

“I think all the uncertainty of last offseason, December and January, to a new coaching staff arriving, them buying into it, a lot of them being great leaders inside of our program, been instrumental in how we have grown. To me, when I think about this group, it’s their ability to face adversity and step right through the fire.”

Heupel also talked about the buy-in from the team, specifically the upperclassmen, and how it has had a profound impact on UT’s success this season.

“I think a lot of coaches will tell you when they go into a new program, the older guys are the toughest guys to get to buy into it because they feel like they’re on the back end of their careers. To me, that hasn’t been the case at all inside of our program. I think we’ve had great buy-in from everyone throughout the course of the process.”

From a player’s perspective, it didn’t take long for the team to believe in what Heupel, and his staff were preaching.

“It didn’t take me too long,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Ja’Quain Blakely said. “Just coming in and knowing a little bit of their background and doing some research, it didn’t take me long to know that these guys know what they say, say what they mean, and they came here for one thing—to win games.”

The full transcript of Heupel’s Monday press conference can be found below, along with select player quotes.

Vols HC Josh Heupel / Credit: UT Athletics

Heupel Transcript

Opening statement…
“Since I won’t be seeing you at the end of the week, wishing all of you a happy Thanksgiving. Everybody in Vol Nation, all our players, families, everybody, wish you all a safe and happy Thanksgiving. Looking forward to this last home game here with our players, in particular our seniors. Opportunity to go compete and finish the regular season the right way. Look forward to having a great home field advantage. Last week, I thought our fan base was just phenomenal. Vol Walk was packed, and then the energy inside the stadium was great early in the football game. Our student body was a huge part of that too. I know this week is tough with it being Thanksgiving, but we look forward to seeing all those men and women back in the stadium on Saturday afternoon. Huge game for us. It’s the finish of the regular season, it’s an in-state opponent, and one that our players and staff will be ready to go for.”
 
On his Senior Day experience as a player and if he will discuss that experience with his players…
“It is one that you remember, parts of it. The four or five years go really quick. When you’re a freshman, it seems like it’s a long way away. By the time you get to the end of it, it goes really quickly. Really appreciative of all that our guys have done, in particular since I’ve gotten here. They’ve been a huge part of laying the foundation to our program and been instrumental in the acceleration of our growth as a program, too. I think the emotion—you get done with warmups, you get a chance to see your family, that part’s unique. And because of that, I think you truly try to soak some things in that maybe you haven’t as much during the course of your career. But then when you go back in that locker room before you run out, then it becomes ball. For our guys, separating the two will be important in preparing the right way and executing once the game’s kicked off. But again, it is certainly something that you will remember.”
 
On when he realized his team could be competitive…
“I think outside expectations, outside noise, is something that myself and our staff has tried to not pay attention to. I think the players have bought into that as well. From the moment I got here, I never placed a ceiling on what our football team could do. You’ve heard me say it, that we’re in a race against ourselves. I’m so proud of the growth from the first day that I got here to who we are now. Certainly want some things to be better at the same time too, as a coach, but the growth of individuals and collectively as a team is really special. I think we’ve laid a great foundation to what we’re going to be in the future.”
 
On what’s left to accomplish for Cedric Tillman after his recent success…
“He’s still growing as a player. Extremely confident, great understanding of what we’re doing, but he’s going to continue to get better just fundamentally. You’ve seen him make a bunch of competitive plays here down the stretch, that’s just scratching the surface of his ability to make plays. He’s going to continue to get better. He’s going to be an extremely dynamic player.”
 
On what he hopes to accomplish against Vanderbilt…
“It’s for us, that we’re going to finish as a program. We talked about that a little bit last week, but this is the end of the regular season. If we’re going to finish it, then our preparation’s going to be consistent but continue to get better. You’re constantly proving things to yourself. To me, that’s what we’re trying to do this Saturday.”
 
On if he would play aggressively and dial up blitzes if he coached the defensive side…
 “Yes sir, absolutely. That’s what my dad was. That’s what I would be too.”
 
On balancing his contributions to the defense as an offensive-minded head coach…
“I think it’s my experience of being around the game with my dad, him being on the defensive side of the ball. I think it’s really important that you hire great people, and then set the parameters of what you foresee of the style of play that you want to have. Then, you have to let guys do that. We have a tremendous staff, on the offensive side of the ball, too, starting with Coach Golesh (Alex Golesh) and the assistant coaches, but defensively, Coach Banks (Tim Banks) and his ability to lead, his ability to teach and mentor. That’s shared by his assistant coaches on that side of the football. Coach Ekeler (Mike Ekeler) is true to who he is, just personality-wise, having known him a long time. You hire people that fit your vision in the building, outside of the building, and then you’ve got to let them grow.”
 
On K’Rojhn Calbert working his way back from injury…
“Young guy that’s been banged up a bunch during the course of his career. Obviously, you know this season was cut short early, but he fought and got himself in a position to get back on the field. Awesome to see him get an opportunity to play, and a lot of our guys on our roster. Those are unique times that those people remember, too.”
 
On what stands out from Vanderbilt offensively and defensively…
“I think for us on the offensive side of the ball, (Vanderbilt is) thick, strong and physical in their front seven. I think they continue to get better throughout the course of the season. Last week, they had an opportunity to turn it into a one-possession game late in the football game, but weren’t able to convert inside the red zone. Offensively, their ability at quarterback to run the football is a big part of their game, and something that we’ve got to do a good job against this week.”
 
On what he will appreciate about the senior class the most…
“Facing adversity and running right into it. Never losing faith and just continuing to compete and grow. I think all the uncertainty of last offseason, December and January, to a new coaching staff arriving, them buying into it, a lot of them being great leaders inside of our program, been instrumental in how we have grown. To me, when I think about this group, it’s their ability to face adversity and step right through the fire.”
 
On the buy-in from players into his program and what difference it makes…
“I think a lot of coaches will tell you when they go into a new program, the older guys are the toughest guys to get to buy into it because they feel like they’re on the back end of their careers. To me, that hasn’t been the case at all inside of our program. I think we’ve had great buy-in from everyone throughout the course of the process. I don’t know when. I felt like the buy-in continued to grow throughout the course of it. After our initial meeting (in January), I think there was some energy from them that, ‘Man, maybe things are going to be different.’ But like all young players, I think your actions speak a lot louder than your words. The consistency of what we did in those first two, three weeks was really important. But then when you get on the field, the first practice was different, first padded practice was different. I think they understood our expectations, but then started to grow and feel comfortable, and knew that they were going to have an opportunity to learn and grow inside of the game, and do it in a really positive way. I think throughout the course of the summer, there was buy-in just in the way that we were preparing them was different. They felt like they were getting stronger and being in great shape to go compete. Training camp was different, more buy-in. And them some success early in the season. I think just continuing to create and energy and a buy-in from them, that there’s a 365 day out of the year plan to help them grow and be what they have dreamed and want to be. They all have high goals, and I think they believe in the process that we’ve put before them.”
 
On Hendon Hooker’s ability to mesh with teammates despite being a newcomer…
“I think for Hendon, it starts with just who he is. Everybody sees his work ethic and his ability to relate, communicate, and lead the players around him. As he’s played more, he’s continued to grow in comfort and understanding. The little things have added up to the big things that equal the success that everybody can see. The quarterback position is really important. It’s hard to be successful when you don’t have a guy playing at a high level. At the same time, it takes 10 others guys around him for him to maximize what he’s able to do. I think our players have continued to grow. You guys have seen us incrementally get better throughout the course of the season. He’s been a big part of that, but so have the other guys around him.”
 
On his Thanksgiving plans…
“I might have about 25 people in this week, so there will be a lot going on. My wife will take care of most of that. I’ll have some nieces and nephews running around at practice. I think it’s an awesome time. You want to be playing football this weekend. Get to blend two of my favorite things, family and football, together. For our players, we’ll have some fun on Thursday. I think it’s unique that a lot of our players will have a chance to get home for a little bit and enjoy that experience. Try to have players over that aren’t able to go home, that will come over to our houses and have Thanksgiving at our place, too.”
 
On walk-on QB Gaston Moore
“Young man that walked on and has continued to grow in his understanding of what we’re doing offensively. Smart, competitive, and does a really good job inside of the room too. Young guy that doesn’t always get all the reps that you want, but is diligent in continuing to grow and fundamentally has gotten better. Footwork and eye discipline has gotten a lot better too. It was good exposure for him to get in the ballgame the other night.”
 
On his initial impression of Velus Jones Jr. …
“On special teams, saw some of the impact that he had as a returner. Felt like he was dynamic in that role. Thought he had a chance to continue to grow a fundamental understanding of how to play the wide receiver position at a really high level. Just where we were personnel wise, started him outside. Felt like his natural home was probably inside, but that was just where we were at that time. Him being able to get into the slot here, I think has allowed him to play his best football.”
 

Player Quotes

Ja’Quain Blakely – DL – Redshirt Senior
 
On understanding the new coaching staff…
“It didn’t take me too long. Just coming in and knowing a little bit of their background and doing some research, it didn’t take me long to know that these guys know what they say, say what they mean and they come here for one thing—to win games.”
 
On why he stayed at Tennessee during the coaching change…
“I never really had the thought about leaving. I feel like God sent me here and I felt I had something that I needed to do, I had work to be done here. That went into my decision to stay but as far as the rewarding part, I do feel that me staying helped me gain a lot as a player and as a man after football. So, I am glad I stayed.”
 
On what the upcoming Vanderbilt game means to him…
“It means a lot. Even though I am not a Tennessee kid, I still feel like I am from Knoxville, so, this game means a lot to me just because it is in-state and basically bragging rights—who runs the state of Tennessee.”
 
On people who have impacted him through his years at UTK…
“Yes sir, there has been a lot of people. Really everybody that I have come in contact with in my time here at Tennessee has meant something to me in such small ways and big ways. (I have) just been blessed to be here and have those people in my corner, and know that I can call them whenever I need them.”


Velus Jones Jr. – WR – Redshirt Senior

On how he would summarize his journey coming to Tennessee…
“There were a lot of things that were up in the air, was unsure about a lot of things, but that is how good God has been to me. God has been so good to me. At USC, I would’ve never known it would’ve unfolded this way with me coming to Tennessee. It’s just amazing, living life a day at a time. I’ve been blessed, and everything has been going well for me. I am a firm believer that your life has already been written, and so I’m just living it day by day. It’s been a journey. It’s been something really beautiful something really special that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
 
On him having a career year as a wide receiver…
“I have been truly blessed. All of my coaches believing in me, putting me in a position to be successful in any way I can help my team. I’m just blessed to be in a position put my family, my team, in a position to win games and stuff for our success. It’s been unreal; all the years facing a lot of adversity and to be able to put my talents on display for the world to see the true receiver that I am. I feel like I have come a long way. I still have a long way to go, a lot of things to clean up and work on, but I’m just going to keep it going these last two games and see how this unfolds.”
 
On how he will handle his emotions on Saturday with it being his last game in Neyland Stadium…
“I probably will feel a little sad emotion and stuff like that. Playing with my brothers, I love this football team, love this university, and I’ve been surrounded by great people with the staff and everybody that has anything to do with Tennessee football. If I was to drop a tear, it would be tears of joy because of my journey and these guys. I made a lot of brothers, and these relationships will last for a lifetime. I’m just going to soak it all in, enjoy this last regular-season week of practice, and go out and perform on Saturday.”

-UT Athletics

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