KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Less than 48 hours from kicking off the 2023 season, Tennessee football went through its Thursday walkthrough in jerseys and shorts inside the Anderson Training Center before head coach Josh Heupel took the podium for his final media session of game week.
With more than 20 practices under their belt this fall, 15 sessions in the spring and countless hours of conditioning and weight training this offseason, the 12th-ranked Vols are eager to embark on the 2023 campaign. Tennessee squares off with Virginia Saturday in Nashville (Noon ET/11 a.m. CT, ABC) for a non-conference tilt inside a sold-out Nissan Stadium.
“This past week, you can feel that it’s time to go hit somebody else,” Heupel said Thursday. “You’re looking at 20 practices during the course of training camp, 20-plus, and 15 spring ball, so they’re certainly ready to go play. All the work that we’ve put in since the end of January was for these opportunities here, and this is a special one. It’s the opener to the season, a really good opponent, plus it’s unique that we’re opening up in Nashville in front of a bunch of our own fans.”
Tennessee’s roster features a levy of experienced returners in the backfield with running backs Jabari Small, Jaylen Wright and Dylan Sampson expected to see meaningful action throughout the upcoming season. The trio combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards and 29 rushing touchdowns last fall, helping the nation’s No. 1 offense break the school record for most rushing touchdowns (40) in a single season.
Balancing the carries and riding the hot hand will be key with such a deep running back corps, which Heupel spoke to during his Thursday media availability.
“All of those guys are going to play a bunch,” Heupel said. “That’s true this week, and that’s true throughout the course of the season. Sometimes you get into the second half of things and you end up feeding one guy. Inevitably in this game at that position, guys get nicked up, whatever it might be. You have to go with the guy that is fresh and ready to play at the highest level at the end.”