The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

Heupel and Tennessee show they're more than hype

17 days ago
Kevin Scarbinsky
Photo: AP Photo/John Bazemore

A lot of numbers get tossed around during SEC Football Media Days, some more relevant than others. Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman threw out two digits Thursday that will make your jaw drop - if it's not impolite to use the word "drop" in the same sentence as an elite wideout - while painting a vivid picture of how hard these guys work.

It's common for college wide receivers to catch a lot of footballs from a JUGS throwing machine during the off-season. Tillman said it's not unusual for the UT receivers to catch 500 a day and 10,000 a month.

"These are the things people don't see," Tillman said.

Quarterback Hendon Hooker said he likes to be the first person to arrive and the last person to leave the practice facility, but "I always seem to catch some receivers in there, catching some JUGS."

That behind-the-scenes preparation helps explain the production from Tillman, Hooker and the Tennessee offense in Josh Heupel's debut as head coach. Heupel became the first two-time winner of the Steve Spurrier First-Year Coach of the Year Award presented by the Football Writers Association of America.

Imagine what the Vols might do for an encore.

Tillman caught 64 balls in 2021, making him the leading returning receiver in the SEC. A year ago, he finished third in the conference in touchdown catches and yards per catch. "A year ago," Heupel said, "who thought Ced was going to have the year he had?"

Hooker, who didn't take over as the starting quarterback until the third game, finished the season fourth in the SEC and fourth in Tennessee history with 3,561 total yards. He led the SEC, finished third in the Football Bowl Subdivision and set the school record for passer efficiency rating.

"Hendon is a pure winner," Heupel said. "He is a great leader inside of our program. I think from Year One to Year Two, that's one of the things that he's really been able to gravitate to and grab ahold of, is that leadership component. Everybody inside of our building feels his energy and focus every single day."

Heupel's long record of expertise as a play-caller and quarterback developer has led some analysts to downplay Hooker's production by calling him a system quarterback. Tillman has a different opinion: "I know Hendon is one of the top quarterbacks in the country."

A trip to the Manning Passing Academy in June both acknowledged Hooker's stature and helped him develop his skills. He called it "a blessing" to attend and to spend time with "the first family" of former Tennessee quarterback Peyton, former Ole Miss quarterback Eli and their father, former Ole Miss quarterback Archie.

"I showed 'em some love, and they showed it right back," Hooker said. "The quarterback community is a special thing."

But the off-season wasn't all about ball for Hooker and Tillman. The quarterback wrote a children's book on scripture to encourage his 6-year-old nephew Landon to read more because "all he wants to do is play ball all day." Hooker and Tillman arrived in Atlanta this week from New York, where they met with brands such as Topps Trading Cards and Fanatics on a networking trip sponsored by the Spyre Sports Group collective that works with Tennessee student-athletes.

A highlight of that trip: Appearing on the Nasdaq billboard in Times Square.

"That's a great opportunity," Heupel said. "Exactly what the collegiate experience should be all about."

A year ago, Heupel's first UT team started fall camp with 69 scholarship players, and he called those Vols "the thinnest football team in America, hands down, not even close." They're still not up to the 85 scholarship max, but with Hooker back for a sixth season of college football and Tillman returning for a fifth year, you might want to catch as many Tennessee games as possible this fall.

"I'm really proud of what we did in that first 12 months," Heupel said, "but so excited about what's going to happen here in the future, too."