Tennessee’s 11-2 record exceeded expectations. One reader of westwords said it was so exciting, he could barely believe it.
Another said no way Josh Heupel shows improvement in his third season but, just in case, set some money aside for a raise.
The 2023 schedule:
Sept. 2: Tennessee vs Virginia (Nashville); Sept. 9: Austin Peay at Tennessee; Sept. 16: Tennessee at Florida; Sept. 23: Texas-San Antonio at Tennessee; Sept. 30: South Carolina at Tennessee; Oct. 7: Open date; Oct. 14: Texas A&M at Tennessee.
Oct. 21: Tennessee at Alabama; Oct. 28: Tennessee at Kentucky; Nov. 4: UConn at Tennessee; Nov. 11: Tennessee at Missouri; Nov. 18: Georgia at Tennessee; Nov. 25: Vanderbilt at Tennessee.
Go ahead, put the black marker on most difficult days. Can the Vols get close enough to the Alabama goal to kick another three-pointer? Will Neyland Stadium fans help enough against Georgia?
Do you think Missouri will be hiding in the weeds, waiting to get even with the Volunteers?
How significant were 11 victories? It happened in 1938, when Tennessee presented a perfect season (coach Robert R. Neyland), in 1970 (Bill Battle), 1989 (John Majors), 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001 (Phillip Fulmer).
The official Joe Milton first magic moment was fourth quarter, eight-plus minutes remaining, third-and-nine at the Tennessee 41, Vol lead down to 21-14 after a very recent Clemson touchdown.
Milton picked a narrow throwing route and drove the ball to Ramel Keyton for 13.
Heupel picked a run as the next play but changed his mind to another pass. Keyton lined up right and beat the coverage. Milton looked left, came back to Keyton and lofted a beautiful pass. He said it was a great feeling, knowing Ramel was going to catch the ball.
Keyton caught it at the 7 and coasted in, 46 yards, 28-14, Tigers in bad trouble.
“When the ball was in the air, I was just thinking focus and don’t drop it,” Keyton said. “I knew we needed that one.”
Milton said what happened “still does not feel real … Later, I will probably cry.”
Is the great quarterback competition of spring practice already over? Whether QB coach Joey Halzle admits it or not, Milton will start two laps ahead in the race for No. 1. He directed traffic in the season-ending 56-0 victory over Vanderbilt. Against Clemson, he was 19 of 28 for 251 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, no lost fumbles.
“He was really, really accurate with his underneath game,” Halzle said.
Teammates appreciate Milton. They like the fact that he didn’t quit when he lost the starting job. Whether that translates as leadership is only a maybe at this point. Milton has benefited greatly from his friendship with Hendon Hooker and the hours they talked football. Hooker handed off what he learned, including the importance of personal relationships with linemen, receivers and running backs.
Five-star Nico Iamaleava may or may not be the $8-million recruit. A lot of eyes were on him throughout bowl preparations. He was “Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik” in Vol secondary drills. Media couldn’t watch but rumor has it Nico caused considerable consternation.
Iamaleava, Tayven Jackson, Navy Shuler and Gaston Moore will be in the quarterback derby.
Statistical discoveries: Jaylen Wright was the Vols’ leading runner. He gained 875 yards on 146 carries, an average of six per run. He scored 10 touchdowns. His long run was 83.
Jabari Small had 157 attempts, 734 net gain, 4.7 average, 13 scores and long of 52.
Linebacker Aaron Beasley was a busy man on defense. He had 39 solo tackles, 37 assists, 13 stops for losses and three sacks.
Reunion: Darnell Wright, offensive tackle who stayed and starred when so many teammates transferred, is headed for a meeting with former Vols Wayne Morris, Eric Gray, Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch at the Senior Bowl Feb. 4 in Mobile.
They’ll be friends.
Two NFL analysts have said Wright is the best prospect at his position in the forthcoming draft. Darrell credits Tennessee offensive line coach Glen Elarbee for his improvement.
“He’s meant everything,” Wright said. “If I could explain it, it’d be like my first two years was really just raw, not knowing exactly what’s going on, not reading the defense, just surviving off of athleticism or off just instincts.
“I feel like Coach Elarbee taught me the game, broke the game down for me. I wish I had 10 more years with him, just to see how far it could go. He’s definitely kick-started, in my mind, what it means to really be a man and take my game seriously.”
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected].