Tennessee’s three keys to the 2023 season

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee defensive end Tyler Baron and defensive back Wesley Walker, shown celebrating a stop during last seasons win at Vanderbilt, are among the returning veterans on that side of the ball.


1. Milton's the man

Hendon Hooker was on his way to the Heisman Trophy ceremony before suffering a torn ACL last November, but now Joe Milton III is Tennessee's top quarterback and the face of the program in Josh Heupel's third season at the helm.

Milton struggled with overthrowing receivers when he became Tennessee's short-lived starter during the early stages of the 2021 season, but it was a noticeably improved Milton who directed the Volunteers to convincing wins over Vanderbilt in the regular-season finale and Clemson in the Orange Bowl after Hooker went down. According to third-year quarterbacks coach and new offensive coordinator Joey Halzle, there has been additional improvement provided by Milton.

"Playing that position is a huge part of having everyone bought into you as a person as opposed to just you as a player," Halzle said this past week. "As he's gotten more comfortable in his role, it's really as his understanding of his offense has grown to where he's not worried about that part of it.

"He's been able to put a lot of his energy towards bringing the next group of guys along and making sure he's got that type of real relationship with his fellow team."

Milton doesn't have to be All-SEC for Tennessee to have another special season, but he will need to be in that conversation.

2. Defensive progress

Tennessee significantly reduced its number of defensive breakdowns last season compared to the year before, though the 63-38 loss at South Carolina defined a late-season debacle.

The Vols turned in stellar defensive performances against LSU, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and in the Orange Bowl, and they return a slew of experience, including nine defensive backs who have started multiple games. The defensive coaching staff also returns intact again, and Roman Harrison heads a deep edge rushing position that will look to replace the productivity of Byron Young.

Despite the experience on defense, Tennessee did not have a single first-, second- or third-team preseason All-SEC selection on that side of the ball.

"I think the people who have been in this program now going on our third year, they see how the culture was flipped," defensive backs coach Willie Martinez said. "You're getting more players who have been here for those three years saying the things that we're saying to them when we're not around. It becomes tougher for us to get a word in at practice. We're not coaching the small things anymore. The players are doing it.

"That's where it benefits where you have consistency in the staff. It matters to the players for the consistency to buy in."

3. Brand new show

Tennessee has exceeded expectations since Heupel was introduced in January 2021, but that will be tougher now than ever before following last season's run to an Orange Bowl championship.

The Vols have far more talent and depth compared to the roster Heupel assembled two years ago, but will everyone know his role and thrive in it? Again, it's been the furthest thing from an issue to this point.

"I've said it before, but when you get into the season, it's not going to be perfect for everybody," Heupel said. "All of the goals individually that you set -- at the end of the day, everybody has got to sacrifice a little bit for the success of the team. It's important that we continue to have that inside of our locker room and inside of our program."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].


All times Eastern and p.m.; SEC games in bold

Sept. 2 — vs. Virginia in Nashville, noon (ABC)

Sept. 9 — vs. Austin Peay, 5 (SECN+/ESPN+)

Sept. 16 — at Florida, 7 (ESPN)

Sept. 23 — vs. UTSA, TBA

Sept. 30 — vs. South Carolina, TBA

Oct. 14 — vs. Texas A&M, TBA

Oct. 21 — at Alabama, TBA

Oct. 28 — at Kentucky, TBA

Nov. 4 — vs. Connecticut, TBA

Nov. 11 — at Missouri, TBA

Nov. 18 — vs. Georgia, TBA

Nov. 25 — vs. Vanderbilt, TBA