Quotes: With Game Week 1 Underway, Heupel Previews Virginia Matchup

Quotes: With Game Week 1 Underway, Heupel Previews Virginia Matchup

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Game week has arrived on Rocky Top as the No. 12/10 Tennessee football Volunteers head to Nashville this weekend and begin year three under head coach Josh Heupel. The highly anticipated 2023 campaign kicks off Saturday with a neutral-site contest against the Virginia Cavaliers inside Nissan Stadium.
 
“Best five words in Tennessee are ‘It’s football time in Tennessee,'” Heupel said in his weekly Monday press conference. “Officially game week, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity of going and playing with his program. It’s awesome that we get an opportunity to start inside (of the) midstate. Huge fan following there, but you look at the opportunity we have. We have a great opponent, SEC Nation is going to be there, national TV audience as we kick off the 2023 season. Looking forward to being there.”

Redshirt senior quarterback Joe Milton III is set to take the reins and lead Tennessee’s offense after generating plenty of buzz and receiving numerous preseason honors during fall training camp. The Pahokee, Florida, native enters his third year at UT as a preseason All-SEC selection and candidate for multiple national awards.
 
With the season opener just five days away, Heupel spoke on Milton seizing his opportunity as the field general for the Big Orange.
 
“He’s put himself in a position to play at a really high level because of the work ethic that he’s had inside of our program,” Heupel said. “Since the back half of that first season, he’s become really mature in who he is, what he’s about and how he’s going to work and impact his teammates. The leadership role is not just coming from the Orange Bowl. He’s been that guy for a long time inside of our program. He’s someone that’s continued to grow in his understanding of defensive alignments which allows us to communicate and adjust quickly with him. I think it’s really important that he has complete command of what we are doing offensively.”
 
Senior linebacker Aaron Beasley, Tennessee’s leading tackler last fall and a preseason candidate for the Bednarik Award, spoke to media Monday and discussed the unit’s aggressive mindset heading into the 2023 campaign.
 
“Uber-aggressive, play really fast—that’s the mindset for us,” Beasley said. “Just attacking. We blitz a lot, so just playing in the opponent’s in the back field. Affecting the line of scrimmage, affecting the quarterback, really just uber aggressive.”
 
The Vols and Cavaliers will square off on ABC at noon ET/11 a.m. CT as UT opens its season in Nashville for the first time since 2015.
 
The full transcript from Heupel’s Monday press conference can be viewed below, along with select quotes from Beasley and senior defensive back Doneiko Slaughter.

Tennessee Football Press Conference | Aug. 28, 2023

Head Coach Josh Heupel

Opening statement…
“Great to see everybody, officially game week. Great to have everybody here. I just want to start by expressing my condolences, our football program’s condolences, to Coach (Matt) Kredich and his entire family. Tragic loss of their son Ben. Cannot imagine what their family is going through. Ben is somebody that here locally impacted a lot of people and stood for the things that were right. Wanted to express my condolences to them. Also, coach (Phillip) Fulmer, continue to wish him a speedy, well recovery. Texted back and forth with him, seems to be doing really well and in good spirits. Look forward to having him get healthy and get back around.
 
“Best five words in Tennessee are ‘It’s football time in Tennessee’. Officially game week, looking forward to the opportunity of going and playing with this program. It’s awesome that we get an opportunity to start inside (of the) midstate. Huge fan following there, but you look at the opportunity we have. We have a great opponent, SEC Nation is going to be there, national TV audience as we kick off the 2023 season. Looking forward to being there, having an opportunity to recruit on Friday night as well and continue to showcase ourselves in front of the entire country, but have our followers in the midstate have an opportunity to host us there, so looking forward to that. Ready to kick off, time to go play. I’m here and I’m going to say a bunch of words, but it’s time to go play.”
 
On if execution or tempo is the top priority for the offense in the opener…
“On the offensive side of the ball, at the end of the day, execution is paramount. It doesn’t matter how fast you play if you’re not executing. I think in openers, all three phases of the game, you have a game plan. Everybody has had seven plus months of an opportunity to subtly change who they are, personnel is going to be different. You have to do a really good job of adjusting. You play your core principles in all three phases, players have to be able to communicate, adjust. In-game adjustments are paramount in this too. As you go to the sidelines, absolutely critical that our staff and players do a great job.”
 
On how he feels about the return game…
“Excited about the guys that we have there. Also, we’ve talked a lot about the depth of our program, how it’s continued to grow over the three years here. That shows up in special teams a bunch too. We’ve got guys who are ready to compete, play as hard as they can on those plays, but play with great fundamentals and technique. Feel like that has an opportunity to help us in our cover units but certainly in our return game as well.”
 
On if he feels like the team took advantage of the week before game week…
“I do, I feel like our guys were dialed in, did the things that we were asking them to. We moved ahead with a little bit of preparation for this coming Saturday. We still did a lot of really good good-on-good work throughout the course of it too. Every player inside of your program has got to continue to grow. Good teams do that throughout the course of the season. For us, that week before the week is as important as any other week.”
 
On what Virginia QB Tony Muskett brings to the table…
“Been a really good decision maker, threw for a bunch of yards, has good pocket awareness. Him being in week one, year one within their system, what are the new things that they do to try and put him in a position (to succeed)? We’ll find out on gameday. A guy that has played really good football at a high level and has been a good decision maker. For us, we have to do a great job of handling the run game. We have to apply pressure. That can be from our pressure package, but it can also just be with our front four. We have to make him uncomfortable inside the pocket.”
 
On what stands out about Virginia’s defense…
“They do have some new transfers, in particular on the backend. They have experience in their front seven. They are doing a good job against the run. We got to do a really good job of being dialed into our protections, our run schemes, make sure we’re targeting the right people. The question was brought up earlier, do our assignments, handle our assignments at a really high level, be really good in our communication and go execute.”
 
On who has shown themselves as the top wide receivers…
“We’ve had a lot of guys that have played really good football for us. Ramel (Keyton) played the last eight, nine weeks of the season for us on the right side. Bru McCoy has played at a really high level. Squirrel White, when given the opportunity last year, played extremely well. Dont’e Thornton has continued to come along. Two young guys that I’ve talked about, Kaleb Webb and Chas Nimrod, we feel really confident about the growth that they’ve had inside the program, their ability to go play at a really high level.”
 
On Joe Milton III having another opportunity as the starting quarterback…
“I’m excited for him. He’s a guy that did it the right way when it didn’t go his way early on. He looked at himself and saw how he needed to continue to improve to get better, trust in his coaches and the program and believe in the guys around him inside of the locker room. He’s put himself in a position to play at a really high level because of the work ethic that he’s had inside of our program. Since the back half of that first season, he’s become really mature in who he is, what he’s about and how he’s going to work and impact his teammates. The leadership role is not just coming from the Orange Bowl. He’s been that guy for a long time inside of our program. He’s someone that’s continued to grow in his understanding of defensive alignments which allows us to communicate and adjust quickly with him. I think it’s really important that he has complete command of what we are doing offensively.”
 
On how the offensive line looks and if there is any update on Cooper Mays
“With Cooper, we’ll find out his availability as the week goes on. We’ve had two and a half to three weeks to give guys opportunities to play on the interior if he’s not able to go. I feel really confident in those guys.”
 
On how comfortable he feels with rotating the defensive back room…
“The second and third levels have gotten nicked up a little bit in this part of training camp. Those guys are all back and healthy. They’ve been with us all of last week as well. We’ve gotten really good work in. That gives us the ability to rotate on the backend. We have a plan, and we’ll see how it unfolds on gameday. Expect to see a lot of people rotating in corner, safety and the nickel spot as we go there.”
 
On how comfortable he feels with rotating the offensive line room…
“I do feel good about the development of our young guys. Some of the guys that have had experience, we plan on rotating them at the guards and tackle position in this first one.”
 
On how important it was for John Campbell Jr. to give the offensive line group clarity at the tackle spot…
“Competition to earn the starting spot and play at a championship level. His maturity and the amount of football he has played, all certainly help us. He’s had a great camp. We have great trust in him, and he’s playing at a really high level.”
 
On if there is anything the team will do to pay tribute to Virginia this weekend…
“It’s obviously a horrific tragedy that took place there on their campus. They’ve had a long time to try and grow through that. We also recognize what happened. There will be a moment of silence before kickoff, and we’ll wear a decal of the three individuals that lost their lives on the back of our helmets.”

Senior LB Aaron Beasley

On the identity of the defense this year…
“Uber-aggressive, play really fast—that’s the mindset for us. Just attacking. We blitz a lot, so just playing in the opponent’s in the back field. Affecting the line of scrimmage, affecting the quarterback, really just uber aggressive.”
 
On his assessment of the defense going into the opener…
“I like where we’re at. I like what I’ve seen at camp and the past couple of practices. I think we’ve just got to keep improving. We haven’t seen what we look like against someone other than our offense. I like us, I like our depth, I like the talent we have. I just can’t wait to see when Saturday comes.”
 
On the young guys that have stood out to him…
“A lot of them have. The guys in the secondary, of course my young bulls in the LB room. They’re really smart and really talented. Just how they carry themselves. I can see myself when I was a freshman to now, them as freshmen. They carry themselves really well, and they’re really smart and talented. That’s for offense and defense — I’m really impressed with all of them.”

Senior DB Doneiko Slaughter

On how comfortable he is in the corner position coming up on the season opener …
“Very comfortable. I have been working at corner the whole fall camp, getting my technique better and whatnot, and going through the details of whatever it takes to be a primary player at corner spot. I still like being in the box a little more and I like hitting, but corner has grown on me.”
 
On what’s different about preparing for the first game of the season …
“A lot, because we haven’t really seen what they (Virginia) have yet besides the spring game to go off of. It’s really just more of you’re ready to play now. You’ve had that first week to prepare, but now it’s here, so there’s a lot of preparation. Keep going, and you’re just ready to get on the field and perform.”
 
On how his confidence in Tennessee’s defense has developed during camp …
“Just the chemistry between us I’d say—really growing that brotherhood. I’d say again going out, knowing each other’s past, where we’re from, knowing what a guy likes and his intentions for playing football. It’s going to be real fun going out there and performing with the guys. Putting it all out on that field and just knowing we all put our blood, sweat and tears into this game.”

-UT Athletics

Vols HC Josh Heupel / Credit: UT Athletics

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