Tennessee coaches, players not taking Virginia for granted

Countdown to Kickoff By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: Andrew Ferguson | Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee is a 26-point favorite in its opener with Virginia on Saturday in Nashville, but Vols coach Josh Heupel showed a lot of respect for the Cavaliers in his press conference this week.

When asked about what he has learned about new UVA quarterback Tony Muskett, a transfer from FCS member Monmouth, Heupel was complimentary.

“He’s been a really good decision maker, thrown for a bunch of yards, has good pocket awareness,” Heupel said. “What are the new things that [UVA] will do to try to put him in position, we’ll find out on game day, but a guy that’s played really good football at a high level.”

Without question, Tennessee’s defensive game plan against Muskett and Virginia’s offense is as simple as cornbread. The Vols intend to load up the tackle box, stop the Cavaliers’ running game and try to force Muskett into making mistakes.

“So for us, we’ve got to do a great job of handling [UVA’s] run game,” Heupel said. “We’ve got to apply pressure that can be with our pressure package, but it can also just be with our front four. We’ve got to make [Muskett] uncomfortable inside the pocket.”

Vols star linebacker Aaron Beasley, who led his team in tackles last season with 76 (13 behind the line of scrimmage), said Tuesday that Tennessee’s defense will be super aggressive against Virginia.

“We’re going to be an aggressive, attacking defense,” Beasley said. “We blitz a lot.”

Beasley said he liked what he saw of Muskett during film study.

“Virginia does a lot of motions,” the linebacker said. “They like to get out on the perimeter and out-leverage you. Lots of play-action and lots of boots.”

Heupel is also aware of Virginia’s defensive success last year when the Cavaliers were fourth in the ACC in scoring defense (24.0 ppg, No. 48 nationally), and applied lots of pressure to opposing quarterbacks.

“They do have some new transfers, particularly on the back end (cornerbacks Sam Westfall from SMU and Malcolm Greene from Clemson),” the Vols coach said. “They have experience in their front seven and they do a good job against the run (153 rushing yards per game, No. 70 nationally in 2022), so we’ve got to do a really good job of being dialed in to our protections, our run schemes and make sure we’re targeting the right people.”

UVA defensive coordinator John Rudzinski’s defense was 12th in the nation last season with an average of three sacks per game, and all but 5.5 sacks return to his unit.

While Tennessee returns most of its running backs from last year’s explosive offense, which led the country in scoring (46.1 ppg) and total yards per game (525.5), Vols running backs coach Jerry Mack noted Tuesday that the offense can’t take Virginia for granted.

“You can tell [Virginia] was in a lot of games last year,” Mack said of his film study of the Cavaliers. “You see their record (3-7) and people just assume that they were not a very good football team, but there were spots, and there were times where they showed flashes, especially in their [defensive] front.

“They have really good defensive ends. There’s a lot of movement up front, a lot of stemming and they press the pocket, so it’s going to be really important for us to make sure that before we get out, we make sure there’s no extra trash hanging around the quarterbacks for his vision.”

Heupel said that Tennessee has planned a moment of silence before the game in memory of the three slain Virginia players in last November’s tragic shooting that rocked the college football world, and that the Vols will be wearing helmet stickers in tribute to those three Cavaliers, D’Sean Perry, Lavel Davis and Devin Chandler.