Just after the conclusion of the 2020 season, tight end Austin Pope decided he was leaving the Tennessee Vols football program.

Pope, who has since returned to Tennessee, entered the transfer portal and gave an “exit interview” to The Atheltic’s David Ubben.

In that interview, Pope made some strong statements that suggested some of the players on Tennessee’s roster weren’t “all in” when it came to winning games.

“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 in late December.

“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.”

I’m not going to dispute what Pope said to Ubben. He’s the one in the locker room on a daily basis. He knows the situation as well as anyone.

But if we’re going to point out what Pope said in December, then it’s only fair to point out what new Vols head coach Josh Heupel said last week about Tennessee’s players and their pride.

According to Heupel, the players on the Vols roster who were on the 2020 team had their pride hurt by the way last season played out.

“They are hurt,” said Heupel last week (via GoVols247). “They heard the outside noise that they didn’t meet the expectations of what Tennessee should and can and will be. They’re prideful, they have great work habits.”

“We’ve grown a bunch,” added Heupel. “We’ve got a long ways to go. But that’s why I’m so excited to get back on the field with these guys when we get to training camp.”

The players on Tennessee’s roster have worked hard to get to where they’re at. Playing in the SEC doesn’t happen by accident. Pride has to be present to get to this level.

And I think it’s only fair that these players — despite the lack of results last season — are recognized for having pride in who they are and where they play.

Featured image via George Walker IV / Tennessean.com via Imagn Content Services, LLC/Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel, Knoxville News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC