He recognizes the reasons for both.
The Vols need a morale boost after a topsy-turvy offseason that featured the firing of coach Jeremy Pruitt, an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations and at least 26 players entering the NCAA transfer portal.
And Heupel is here to calm the waters.
“How I handle every situation, positive or negative, there’s a ripple effect,” Heupel said on Tennessee media day on Tuesday. “And our players clearly understand what a Tennessee Volunteer football player should be doing every single day.
“The program in that way doesn’t resemble where we were when I took over (in late January).”
Then came the reality of the Vols’ situation.
From the same podium, Heupel didn’t avoid the deficiencies apparent on a roster he must retool after a 3-7 record last season.
“Where we are at roster-wise, we are thinner than you’d typically want to be when you head into training camp,” Heupel said. “Keeping our kids healthy will have a huge impact on our season.”
‘Million-dollar question’ of depth
A fresh start after Pruitt’s awkward exit was the source of the Vols’ positive outlook on the season, which begins at home against Bowling Green on Sept. 2.
Heupel brings an exciting up-tempo offense from Central Florida, which ranked No. 2 nationally in total yards the past two seasons.
“There’s not going to be an offense in the country as fast as these guys,” defensive end Matthew Butler said. “They’ve practiced it (in the spring) and gotten very, very good at it.”
But depth concerns are the impetus for caution. And there may not be much the Vols can do to fix that except accelerate inexperienced players into the rotation.
When asked if Tennessee has enough quality players on the defensive line to hold up over a 12-game season, defensive coordinator Tim Banks answered: “That’s the million-dollar question. We have some bodies. We also have some youth and unknowns.”
Positions of need beyond quarterback
Tennessee’s quarterback competition will grab the most attention.
Michigan transfer Joe Milton, who did not practice in the spring, joins Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, sophomore Harrison Bailey and redshirt sophomore Brian Maurer. All four quarterbacks were available for interviews Tuesday, a provision never made by Pruitt, who notoriously preferred a tight-lipped program.
“You can go without (speaking to the media),” Hooker said. “But it’s good to show leadership and talk about what’s going on behind the scenes.”
But the Vols may have bigger questions at other positions because of several players transferring.
Running backs Eric Gray (Oklahoma) and Ty Chandler (North Carolina) transferred, leaving a thin rotation in the backfield. Jabari Small, a former Briarcrest standout, is the talented yet inexperienced starter there.
The offensive line lost Wanya Morris (Oklahoma) and Jahmir Johnson (Texas A&M). The unit needs tackles to develop so Cade Mays, an NFL Draft prospect, can remain at guard.
Henry To’o To’o (Alabama) and Quavaris Crouch (Michigan State) also transferred. And suspensions and a rash of injuries further crippled the linebacking corps in the spring.
But Heupel was especially optimistic that the unit has been replenished. Transfers Juwan Mitchell (Texas) and William Mohan (Michigan) were added in May. Potential starter Jeremy Banks is back from a shoulder injury. Aaron Beasley and Aaron Willis, the top signee of the Vols’ 2021 class, have returned from spring suspensions.
“I might’ve asked some people in this (press conference) room if they could play (linebacker) in the middle of spring ball,” Heupel said. “(But the linebackers are) a completely different room now than it where we left it in spring ball.”
‘Just being optimistic won’t win games’
Tennessee also added cornerbacks Kamal Hadden (Auburn) and Brandon Turnage (Alabama), defensive linemen Da’Jon Terry (Kansas) and Caleb Tremblay (Southern Cal) and former Hillsboro wide receiver JaVonta Payton (Mississippi State) from the transfer portal since spring.
Heupel called it the “double-edged sword” of the transfer portal, even though the Vols lost much more talent than they gained.
Again, it’s the silver lining the new Tennessee coach is trying to highlight in a program mired in mediocrity in recent seasons.
But a positive outlook can only go so far, and his players know it.
“There is a lot of energy (because) people want to change how people look at this program and just get the taste out of our mouth from last year,” Mays said.
“But playing well brings wins. Just being optimistic won’t win games.”
Reach Adam Sparks at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @AdamSparks.