I followed with great interest the first week of Tennessee’s football practice.
As expected, the rhetoric coming from Haslam Field is glowing, positive, encouraging. That’s in stark contrast to what we saw this time last year, COVID or no. Things were a lot more dour coming off of the 8-5 campaign of 2019.
How much of this is real and how much of this is smoke and mirrors? Probably a good mix of both. Given what Tennessee has been through, Vols’ coach Josh Heupel and his staff would probably try to put a good face on the aftermath of the Challenger disaster.
What choice does he have?
Consider that this program has dealt with scandal, ineptitude and a mass exodus of some veteran players via the transfer portal. This team was decimated, which makes me less inclined to predict a lot of fortune for this team this season. There is talent remaining on this team, but much of it is unproven. The defense needs a complete overhaul and was hit hardest by the bailouts. With the investigation ongoing, distractions are going to take their toll as well.
But there does seem to be energy, renewed vigor at practice from players who seem to be having fun playing football in Knoxville again, and comradery that had been absent over the last couple of years.
Also consider that there are a bunch of teams on this year’s schedule who weren’t just real good defensively last year. Six teams on this year’s ledger ranked from 83rd down to 129th. If Heupel can figure out the quarterback situation, which has shackled Tennessee for the past four years or so, this offensive unit could score some points. Who knows? It may score a few more than the other team a couple of times when it wasn’t supposed to.
Right now, this is a good first step. There needs to be at least an illusion of positivity, something the fan base can hang its hat on for the next few weeks. I like what Heupel is saying, I like what his assistants are saying and I like what his players are saying.
But we’ve seen and heard all this before.
What most Tennessee fans really want to like is what the scoreboard is saying.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox, which airs 4-6 p.m. CT, Monday-Thursday on WRJB 95.9 FM, Camden, Tenn.