The Tennessee Vols exceeded expectations in 2021 by finishing 7-6 in Josh Heupel’s first season as the program’s head coach.

Heupel took over a disastrous situation in early 2021 after Jeremy Pruitt was fired due to recruiting violations that occurred on his watch. The program was in such bad shape that some college football analysts predicted the Vols would win only four games in Heupel’s first season.

But even though Tennessee exceeded expectations, it doesn’t mean that everything went smoothly for the Volunteers last season.

Tennessee left a couple of wins on the table due to a couple of issues that Heupel has identified and vowed to fix.

Specifically, the Vols had trouble in third-and-long situations.

Tennessee Vols
Tennessee defensive lineman/LB Byron Young (6) defends against Vanderbilt running back Rocko Griffin (24) during an SEC conference game between Tennessee and Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.
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“We weren’t good on third down, particularly third-and-long,” said Heupel recently in an interview with ESPN’s Chris Low. “We’ve got to be better in that, and that starts with getting a pass rush. I feel like the guys that have come back have made some strides. It was a big emphasis in spring ball.”

“We’ve got to be better knowing our pressure packages of keeping quarterbacks inside the pocket and not letting them out. We got hurt with that multiple times last season. We’ve added some guys that give us a chance to be a little bit different off the edges.”

That has to be encouraging to hear if you’re a Vols fan. It was never going to be perfect last season. There were always going to be issues in Heupel’s first season. But as long as those issues get recognized and get fixed, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s when those issues become recurring problems that there’s cause for concern.

Heupel isn’t trying to sugarcoat anything. He knows that Tennessee could’ve been better in certain situations last season. And he’s spent the offseason (along with his coaching staff) figuring out how to get better in those areas. That’s the sign of a good coach.

I don’t know whether or not the Vols will be better on third-and-long in 2022. But one thing is certain — Heupel is taking the right approach to make sure the problem gets fixed.

Featured image via Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports