Before Jeremy Pruitt lost his job as the head coach of the Tennessee Vols last January, there were conspicuous signs that the program was in major trouble (aside from the recruiting investigation that precipitated Pruitt’s firing).

Tight end Austin Pope, a Knoxville native who entered the transfer portal after the 2020 season but later returned to Tennessee, gave an interview to The Athletic’s David Ubben last December where he pointed out several major issues with the UT football program.

“I think some people in the program lack that mindset (excelling at a high level), as to how hard they’re motivated in terms of why they’re here,” said Pope.

“Like running through the T is just enough for them. Or putting a jersey on and taking a picture after the game after we get our eyes beat in by Alabama, that’s cool.”

That’s certainly not a winning mindset.

But fortunately for the Vols, it sounds like that mindset has been eradicated from Tennessee’s locker room under first-year UT head coach Josh Heupel.

Defensive back Theo Jackson, a fifth-year senior from Nashville, was unable to play this past weekend in the Vols’ win against the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Jackson knew early in the week that he likely wouldn’t play.

But instead of shutting it down for the week, Jackson worked with fellow defensive back Brandon Turnage, a redshirt sophomore who transferred to Tennessee from Alabama, to make sure he was ready for the game.

“One of the guys I think is one of the unsung heroes – Theo Jackson knew he wasn’t going to play or there was a good chance he wasn’t – he worked with Brandon every day and every night,” said Vols linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary on Tuesday.

“[Jackson] watched film with him and really helped prep him. That’s when you know you have good teamwork and you have a brotherhood on your team because Theo knew how much we were going to need him this game if he didn’t play. I have to give Theo a lot of credit.”

This Tennessee team is obviously invested in each other’s success and the success of the program. That’s what a winning attitude looks like.

I’m sure Heupel still has some old habits left over from the Pruitt era that need to be dealt with. But so far, the former Oklahoma quarterback has done exactly what he was hired to do at Tennessee — make as big of an impact as possible as fast as possible.

We’ll see if he can keep the Vols’ positive momentum going this weekend in a tough home matchup against the Ole Miss Rebels on Saturday night.

Featured image via Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Service