Everything Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel said at 2023 SEC Media Days

NASHVILLE — With the conclusion of the NCAA's investigation into former coach Jeremy Pruitt and the Tennessee football program during his tenure, current coach Josh Heupel addressed the media, touching on the NCAA case as well as the upcoming season.
Here is everything Heupel said at the podium at 2023 SEC Media Days on Thursday:
Heupel's opening statement
I'd like to welcome to you Mid-State and the City of Nashville. Hope you guys have had a great week here, enjoying some music, enjoying Broadway and having some fun. This city and this area of the state, Mid-State, is extremely important to the success of Tennessee. It's a big part of our past success, as well, and a lot of great Vol fans and former players that call this place home, and so excited to see them. It's fitting that we are here today for SEC Media Day, because in 44 days we get an opportunity to kick off against Virginia right here in Nissan Stadium. Looking forward to seeing everybody in Vol Nation show up in droves for that ballgame.
As I was getting ready for today, you know, just started writing down some notes last night and really started to reflect just on the past two years and what has transpired inside of our program at our university. And where we're come in such a short amount of time. When I took over two years ago, there was so much uncertainty that surrounded our program in late January, and because of the connection and accountability and the love and trust we've built inside of the building with our players and staff, we've been able to climb relatively quickly.
Heupel on the recruiting scandal
But to go back to that time, you know, we were a program that entered that fall with only 65 scholarships, the uncertainty of an investigation that was taking place on our campus. I said in a room just like this two years ago that it would be a speed bump for the program, our football program. And a few days ago, we found out that certainly was the case. We have navigated it in such a positive way because of the leadership that we have. Phenomenal leadership on our campus from President Boyd to Chancellor Plowman to our athletic director. We have been transparent and real and been able to close that narrative on our program and move forward.
No better time to be a Vol
I'm not sure that there's a better time to be a Vol. You look at the trajectory of our football program, what's happened over the last two years and where we are going, and the energy and excitement that surrounds our building every day, our fan base, Vol Nation across the country, but the success happening in each and every sport that resides inside of our athletic department. Phenomenal leadership with coaches and great student-athletes that do things the right way.Our program has been player-driven from the very beginning. You guys have heard me say that before. It always will be. I think great seasons, championship seasons, happen because of the leadership and the accountability and connection that happens inside of the locker room. As I look back on our past success, that doesn't happen -- I talked about the 35 guys that left our program through the transfer portal right after I took over, we had a lot of guys that stayed, that first year, 65 scholarship guys. Those guys that chose to stay that were connected and cared about the Power T, that '21 and '22 class are going to be revered and remembered in an unbelievably uniqueway because they rebuilt the cornerstones of Tennessee football for the future. And that ends with an Orange Bowl win last year that we are certainly excited about. Parlayed itself into the success that we've had in the NFL Draft over the last two years. Ten draft picks over the last two years, one of the highest in the country; last year, five guys drafted in the top three rounds which is second in the country.
A lot of really unique things that are happening with their future inside of the game, but also what they are doing outside, the impact that they have had inside of our community. We have reset a team record every semester that I have been there. Last semester, we finished with 3.71 team GPA. Our kids are doing it right and having a lot of fun competing together on a daily basis.
Heupel on players at SEC Media Days
Fortunate to bring three tremendous ambassadors for Tennessee football here today. Joe Milton, Omari Thomas and Jacob Warren. Omari and Jacob are residents of this state. They have grown up with the Power T being a symbol inside of this border. Joe obviously is a great leader and ambassador for our program. The tough thing about choosing three guys, you only get to choose three. We have a lot of great guys that are leaders inside of our program that are part of our leadership council that were not fortunate to be here. And couldn't bring them with us but they are also great representatives of our program.
Looking back and ahead
Really a lot of special moments from a year ago. As we look back on the '22 season, a lot of special moments and things that our fan base will remember forever and players inside of our locker room will remember forever. At the same time, fell short of a lot of goals we set for our program. And I'm proud and excited for what our players have done since they have gotten back on campus in late January, their ability to reset and refocus and be ready to goaccomplish a mission together. Individually grow but collectively get ready to go accomplish a mission. It's a group that's extremely hungry, they want more, expect more and we are certainly excited about embarking upon this '23 season.
This season's major priorities
Accountability and consistency has been one of the main things that we have focused on this year. In this conference you don't get any re-dos. You better show up every single Saturday or evening. You're going to play with great players, great coaches, and you have to be ready for those moments at home or on the road, and through that we have tried to increase our leadership and ownership from within our program. I talked about how important that is to me. I think that's where championship seasons lie.
The second thing is we have tried to become more physical. And when I say that, everybody thinks about the line of scrimmage, but it's really at every position and every person inside of our program continuing to grow in that way so we have the opportunity to be the most physical football team on the field every Saturday.
Excited for the Neyland crowd
A ton of excitement surrounds our program. 71,000 season tickets sold. The energy is real inside and outside of our program. But as I said at the end of the Bowl game, the best is yet to come for Tennessee football. Excited about the journey for this group of guys in this '23 season and don't know that there's ever been a better time to be a Vol.
Going from Hooker to Milton
Yeah, I think one of the great stories in college football in the era of the transfer portal is his trust and ability to recognize areas that he can continue to grow in and trust the people around him; that we have his best interests at heart. Understand that within our scheme, he's going to have an opportunity to do everything he wants to, which is be one of the best players in college football. Through that process over the last, you know, 18 to 24 months, he's continued to grow in his comfort of who he is, what he's about and how he wants to attack and approach every single day and how he wants to grow as a football player, meaning fundamentally at the quarterback position, along with understanding offensive and defensive schemes so that he can puts his eyes in the right spot, get his body in the right spot to be consistently accurate with the football, and then how he wants to impact his teammates.
Nobody inside our program was surprised by the success that he had when he got his opportunity last year as astarter. He played extremely well when he got into football games throughout the course of the season. But his preparation, his urgency, how he practiced, all those things led himself and everybody inside our building to believing that he was going to play at that type of level. And he's got a lot more out there. He's had a great off-season for 15 practices in spring ball. Did a great job of working, navigating the pocket, and being extremely accurate with the football. I'm really excited to get back on the grass with him during the course of training camp. I believe he's poised to have a great '23 season.
Looking back at Oklahoma
Yeah, they don't know enough about my playing career. Day 1 in training camp, make sure we put a couple highlights up there (laughter). None of them me running around, either, by the way. It's a great honor to be looked at in that way to be on the ballot to be potentially a part of the Hall of Fame. A year ago, got an opportunity to recognize one of our teammates, Roy Williams go in, such a special player and had such a huge impact on the game and what we did there at Oklahoma.
Those things only happen, though, because of the players that I got an opportunity to be in the locker room with every single day. Very grateful to all of those guys, everybody on the offensive side of the ball, the offensive lineman. It was a special team and it's certainly made a huge impact in my life, part of why I'm up here today, to be honest. And so forever indebted to those guys and very appreciative but humbled by that recognition as well.
The relationship with Oklahoma really isn't complicated. I have got nothing but great memories of the people and my time there. I certainly do. It's a huge -- I got a chance to talk about Mike Leach a few minutes ago backstage in an interview. And, you know, everybody there helped shape who I am and where I'm at today, and still got a lot of great friends and teammates that live back there.
So the opportunity to go back to Oklahoma, yeah, I wish they were coming to Knoxville first. I say that jokingly, but looking forward to that opportunity. That's a long ways down the road, man. Focused on '23, but that will be a unique day in my career, obviously to go back there.
Heupel on retaining his staff
Yeah, you try to create a culture that coaches want to be a part of; they feel like they are part of the process. You want to create a culture where families get a chance to be part of the process as well. I grew up the son of a coach and those are the greatest memories of my childhood, and so I think it's really important that they are a part of it. If you do those things and you have the resources that we have at Tennessee, you're able to have some stability within your staff, which is vitally critical to your players; them understanding what they are walking into every single day, not having to rebuild an entire relationship from the ground up. We have been able to replace those guys and you want staff to grow, too, right. Like Alex will do a great job down at South Florida.
I want guys to get head jobs from where we are at. But guys are not just leaving to take another job, either. Sowe have actually been able to promote from within because they were the right guys. There's so much consistency. All the things that we were navigating as you take over a program, and in year 1 and in year 2, I think was vitally important that we've been able to have that, and it's a big part of our continued growth this off-season here in '23.
Heupel on former coordinator Alex Golesh now at South Florida
Competitive. Willing to work. I think those are two traits that drive you every minute of the day to continue to help your program grow. And, you know, you look at that, it's where the starting blocks are in my opinion. Then he's got great ability to communicate, and he's hired a lot of really good people, some of them were in our building a year ago, some young staff that will be great coaches. So I'm really excited about where he's going to take that program.
More on Milton
It is rare that you're able to keep quarterbacks inside of your quarterback room. The days of having, you know, four or five quarterbacks consistently, I think those are probably not real anymore. Guys want to have the opportunity to play and compete early. I think it's are that a young man like Joe is able to sit back and trust the people around him; that we have his best interests at heart, and recognize the areas that he can and needs to grow in to become the player that he's capable of. And also know that if I stick this thing out and I compete hard every single day, I'm going to grow and in what we do offensively, going to be able to do the things that I wanted to inside of a college football landscape. Those are rare things and it takes a really mature guy which Joe has proven to be.
The pace of the offense
The clock rule at the end of the first half, I think everybody is going to be playing in the same way. I don't think it's going to have a dramatic, different effect on us versus another offense. How you manage your time-outs might be a little different at the end of regulation or the end of the half. All in all, we'll see what the numbers play out to be. But there's a series of the game that's probably taken away in general for every team because of some of the clock rules. But we'll see how that plays out during the course of the year.
Heupel on Omari Thomas
Omari is a guy that loves to have fun. He's got great energy every single day. He's become a really strong leader and being able to command guys, and that can be positively or it can be trying to get them to go accomplish the things that they need to in the weight room or on the practice feed. He's got a great voice inside of our locker room. As I said, a tremendous leader. Vitally important for us as we continue to try to take steps on the defensive side of the ball. A year ago, we took a massive jump in our ability to defend the run. Omari and the guys that we brought back a year ago were a huge part of that.
Expect all of those guys to make another jump. They did a great job in spring ball, fundamentals, technique, consistency play-to-play and day-to-day. And one of the other areas that we have had to improve upon is the ability to affect the passer with our front four, not just bringing pressure. We need that because of situational football. We have to get better on third downs, third-and-long in particular. And I thought those guys did a great job this spring, Coach Garner and Coach Ekeler, what those guys have done up front, really happy and really pleased and excited to get to training camp with them.
Heupel on Texas heading to the SEC
There's only one real UT. One right shade of orange.
Looking back at the Florida game
Catalyst, yes, at that point in the season, but every season there's steps that you have to take and in some ways, there's benchmarks, but there's opportunities for growth. I thought throughout the course of the football season last year, we continued to get better a majority of the season and that's what good teams do. The Florida win was a big one, absolutely, for our fan base as much as anything. Meaning many recent years, we had not had the sameamount of success as we would have liked to. But for our players, there was great confidence going into it, and, yes, great confidence coming out of it as well.
Heupel's defense expectations
Well, my expectation for the defense that we are playing isn't for them to have a whole lot of success, but that's my viewpoint. In football, you've got to play all three phases together, offense, defense, and special teams. And at the end of the day, we are always trying to find a way to be plus one. That can be 3-2 or whatever it needs to be. At the end of the day, every side has got to grow together.
Heupel on tampering
Well, how big of an issue it is, I don't know. I think there are so many people that are involved in the recruitment of players. Could be high school coaches. Could be workout facilities. Seven-on-seven coaches, whatever. There are so many different dynamics that go into it, I don't know how you stop the communication completely at any one point. So I don't have a silver bullet for that issue. Similar to a lot of other issues that maybe we are trying to navigate inside of college football, but there's a lot of smart people that are working on finding answers to those things.
Tennessee's standard
Standard at Tennessee is to win championships. It's pretty clear. You know, I think we are Top-10 in the history of college football in wins, first-round draft picks, Bowls, Bowl wins. The standard is to compete at the highest level and win championships. You know, for us, that starts in the Eastern Division, which everybody knows that there's a lot of good football that's played in that division.
Heupel on AI
AI is infiltrating in so many different areas from business, I'm sure in sport, too. Eventually it becomes a resource probably for everybody inside of college football. You know, how quickly that part takes inside of our program, I can't give you an answer on. But I'm sure that at some point it will.
Fighting for the innocent
Well, I said it earlier when I opened up in my opening remarks, just, you know, our administration and their willingness to fight for innocent student athletes. I mentioned the 65 scholarship players, walking in that first season because there was huge hurdles in our first two years to get to this point that we have had to climb out of. The easiest thing would have been for our administration and me, too, is to take a Bowl ban in year 1, but that wasn't right. The guys that were left were innocent guys and new staff. There's nobody left from the administration in ourathletic department to the football side of it, football staff, to our players that was really involved.
And so it was right to compete and give those guys an opportunity to fulfill or have an opportunity to fulfill all of the things that they wanted to inside of a college football season for those guys that were going out. You know, appreciate our administration and everybody fighting for those guys.
Milton at the Orange Bowl
For Joe, I think it solidified all the work that he put in that he would go out and perform and play. It was proving himself right as much as anything it. Wasn't about proving anybody wrong. It was about proving himself right. It was great for him and the guys around him to see that hard work does pay off and take advantage of your opportunities and be prepared when it comes. The second part of your question is what I'm going to ask.
The day of the NCAA ruling
For the NCAA stuff, our current roster have not thought about it or focused on it very much. I can tell that in the way the team meeting went after the news came out. I was out of town, so we had to do it virtually after their workouts, which was right after the news came out. But for how we handle recruiting, the guys that signed with us in the last 18 to 24 months that trust what we were saying to them, the transparency of the dialogue that we had with them, it was unbelievably satisfying to get over that hump. You're not dealing with unknowns now, not dealing with other programs that are beating you up in some way sensationalizing what's going to happen. I was able to have great trust in what our administration was talking to us about. We were, you know, consistent and clear on that messaging to our recruits, and that's why we have been able to recruit at a really high level. But it's great to have it in the rear-view mirror, not something that you're driving by all the time.
Developing Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt
Young player that we knew was going to play at a really high level when given the opportunity. It's been great to see him grow from a quiet young kid that came on the campus to somebody that's got a ton of personality and energy and affects his teammates in positive ways.
Great work habits, is tough as they come. From day 1, he's willing to stick his face into anything and be extremely physical and complete really hard. He's got elite speed, great ball skills, has the ability to be a great route runner. Anticipate him having a great year; you guys saw him perform really well in the Orange Bowl.
Quite the sexy Tennessee offense
I love your passion and energy for our offense, man (laughter). Might need to bring you in on the recruiting pitch. I think people get caught up in the perimeter numbers and the quarterback development and the quarterback numbers that are out out there. Everybody that studies it understands that the secret to our sauce is the ability to run the football.
Coach Ellerbe and I have been together, I think we are going on year eight now, three different stops. He does an unbelievable job from game plan to fundamentals to teaching overall scheme and concepts on the other side of the ball. Our guys continue to grow from year 1 to year 2. They play synchronized in the tempo that we play at, the ability to communicate and get everybody on the same page. Does an unbelievable job. So I appreciate you recognizing all those things.

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