No. 3 Tennessee Vols insist they’re focused on UT Martin
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — New goalposts are in place and ready for kickoff Saturday at Neyland Stadium. The third-ranked Tennessee Volunteers also insist they know the party is over and they are focused on what’s next.
Even if that next challenge is UT Martin of the Football Championship Subdivision.
“We have an opportunity to get a whole lot better,” said Tennessee coach Josh Heupel. “The challenge is for us to become our best.”
That might be easier said than done days after Tennessee fans painted Neyland orange celebrating last week’s 52-49 win over Alabama. After the Vols ended a 15-game skid to their Southeastern Conference rival, fans stormed the field, tore down the uprights and lit up victory cigars.
Vols quarterback Hendon Hooker threw for 385 yards and five touchdown passes, further cementing him as a Heisman Trophy favorite. Wide receiver Jalin Hyatt caught all five scores while piling up 207 yards with both have been showered with attention.
Heupel has done his best to hit the reset button as the Vols (6-0) head into homecoming with their best start since 1998 when they won the national championship.
“It’s about us,” said Heupel. “It’s about our preparation. (The players) got a good dose of reality from their position coaches and from me too.”
The Vols say they’re listening closely.
“We had a good game; a good week,” Tennessee defensive back Tamarion McDonald said. “Every week, we prepare the same way; focus on the details.”
UT Martin (4-2) will be getting a game check of more than $1 million from its second FBS opponent this season. The Skyhawks lost 30-7 on the road at Boise State in September, and coach Jason Simpson, in his 17th year at UT Martin, understands the bottom line.
Simpson also has an offense averaging 486 yards and 37.5 points per game to test Tennessee’s defense.
“This is what we’re good at, this is what they’re good at,” he said. “Then, we’ll see.”
UT Martin had an open date last weekend after beating Murray State 45-16 on Oct. 8. That allowed Simpson to attend Tennessee’s big win over Alabama in person. His son is a freshman quarterback at Alabama.
“It’s great for our team to compete in that environment,” said Simpson. “It’s an opportunity for our team to grow.”
Hooker tied Heath Shuler’s program record with a touchdown pass in 18 straight games. Now he needs only one more to take that mark all to himself. Hooker’s streak also is tied for the longest streak in the nation along with Clayton Tune of Houston and Memphis quarterback Seth Henigan.
NEXT MAN UP
The Vols’ secondary is thin with cornerback Warren Burrell out for the season and starting safety Jaylen McCollough sidelined after an arrest for felony aggravated assault arrest.
The unit grew thinner when cornerback Christian Charles went out against Alabama with a minor injury. That left walk-on William Wright to play the final four plays of Alabama’s drive for what wound up a 50-yard field goal try that missed wide right.
Wright even came up with a key tackle that Heupel called: “A great lesson to all our players that you don’t know when your opportunity is coming.”
FAMILIAR WITH FBS
Tennessee’s high ranking doesn’t intimidate Simpson. He talked about his team’s 2014 game with No. 1 Mississippi State, which had Dak Prescott at quarterback that season. The Skyhawks lost 45-16. UT Martin already has defending national champion and top-ranked Georgia on the schedule for 2023.
Heupel said McCollough has not been suspended because of the arrest. McCollough allegedly punched someone who walked into his apartment after knocking on a door in the wrong apartment building. “We look forward to having him available soon,” Heupel said.
Wide receiver Cedric Tillman also might be closer to returning. He’s had four weeks of recovery from surgery for a high ankle sprain, the usual recovery period for that procedure.
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