Heupel believes Vols’ passing-game punch ‘not that far off’

Tennessee Athletics photo / Sixth-year senior tight end McCallan Castles accounted for two of Tennessee’s longest receptions this past Saturday against Texas A&M with gains of 13 and 11 yards.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Sixth-year senior tight end McCallan Castles accounted for two of Tennessee’s longest receptions this past Saturday against Texas A&M with gains of 13 and 11 yards.

Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III had seven games last season in which he completed a pass for 50 or more yards.

His longest aerial gain in Saturday's 20-13 topping of Texas A&M was a 17-yarder to Squirrel White in the third quarter.

The No. 17 Volunteers are thriving in the running game, defensively and on special teams entering Saturday afternoon's showdown at No. 11 Alabama (3:30 on CBS), but they are not producing their usual big passing plays.

"We've had guys open and we haven't hit them," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said Monday during his weekly news conference. "The communication has been off at times. We've just got to be a little bit better. It wasn't pretty on Saturday, and I'll be the first to admit that, but it's not that far off, either.

"We've got to do ordinary things at a really high level."

Tennessee's downing of the Aggies included just 100 yards through the air, the lowest aerial total in Heupel's 32 games with the Vols. Saturday also marked the first time Tennessee did not produce a pass play of at least 20 yards during his tenure.

The Vols had a connection of at least 40 yards in each of their first five games, though the 43-yard touchdown from Milton to tight end McCallan Castles in the 30-13 dumping of Austin Peay was a short pass that turned into a long gain due to stellar perimeter blocking by receiver Bru McCoy.

"There are a few things fundamentally that Joe did that caused a couple of passes to be a little bit off target," Heupel said, "and there were a couple of catches we've got to make. We've got to continue to grow that way. We do have great belief in our guys in where we can get to."

Senior receiver Ramel Keyton, who dropped a potentially huge gain in the opening win over Virginia, dropped a potential 42-yard touchdown late in the first quarter against the Aggies. Texas A&M was flagged for roughing Milton on the play, so the Vols got a new set of downs at the Aggies 27 and wound up scoring a touchdown to tie the game.

"In this game, there is a really fine line," Heupel said, "and until you watch the tape and truly understand everything that's going on, I think it's tough to truly understand. You've got to wipe your previous one clean and take the lessons forward with you, good or bad.

"Ramel has played really well, and I have great trust that he'll play extremely well this Saturday."

Heupel also expressed his trust in Milton, who will be starting just his second big rivalry game for the Vols after losing last month at Florida.

"When you don't play your best football, you've got to be able to wipe it clean," Heupel said. "When you play your best football, you've got to be able to wipe it clean, too. At the end of the day, you have a routine that takes you to kickoff so that you can put yourself in a consistent position to go play your best.

"Joe has been really mature in how he's prepared. There are some things fundamentally that he's done really well that he didn't do in the last one. We've got to be a little better in the pass game, and that's him and the wideouts — it's everybody."

Touchdown time

Sixth-year senior tight end Jacob Warren never reached the end zone last season but has three touchdowns this year, and a Tennessee tight end has scored in all five of its wins.

"I'm not doing anything spectacular or crazy or out of the ordinary," Warren said. "I'm just kind of being in the right position. Obviously when opportunity comes you want to make the best of it, and I think that's what the tight ends have done up to this point."

Weekly honors

Tennessee was well represented in the Southeastern Conference's weekly awards Monday, with sophomore edge rusher James Pearce Jr. winning the defensive lineman honor for a second straight week and senior cornerback Dee Williams earning special teams player of the week.

Pearce had two tackles for loss, including a sack, and a career-high five quarterback hurries against the Aggies. He is also the league's highest-graded defensive end, according to Pro Football Focus, with a rating of 91.6.

Williams, who had the 39-yard punt return that gave the Vols their first lead at 14-10, ranks second in the FBS with a 19.0-yard average.

"I'm excited for both of those guys, because they continue to grow in how they prepare," Heupel said. "They continue to grow in their understanding of what we're doing, and they're playing their best football right now. They are two guys who just continue to invest and grow, and that's why they're playing the way that they are."

Injury updates

Heupel was asked Monday about the status of defensive linemen Omarr Norman-Lott and Daevin Hobbs and offensive linemen Gerald Mincey. None of them played Saturday.

"I believe all those guys will be ready as we go through this week," he said. "I anticipate those guys being ready to go."

Way up high

Tennessee's basketball team will begin the 2023-24 season ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press poll and No. 10 in the USA Today coaches' poll.

Both polls were released Monday.

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].

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