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VOL. 45 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 22, 2021

Vols face 2 familiar foes in visit to No. 4 Crimson Tide

By Rhiannon Potkey

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The rich got richer when Henry To’o To’o transferred from Tennessee to Alabama, where the junior leads the Crimson Tide in tackles this season.

-- Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Tennessee senior offensive lineman Jerome Carvin doesn’t need to watch extra tape this week to get a scouting report on Alabama’s leading tackler.

Carvin saw firsthand how disruptive Henry To’o To’o could be during years of practices. Now, Carvin and the Vols will have to deal with To’o To’o as an opponent in a game.

The junior transferred to Alabama in the wake of the turmoil surrounding former UT head coach Jeremy Pruitt’s firing and leads the Crimson Tide in total tackles with 54.

The Vols (4-3, 2-2) travel to play No. 4 Alabama (6-1, 3-1) Saturday night in Tuscaloosa.

“I’m excited. Henry was a great teammate when he was here,” Carvin says with a smile. “I love the guy. But now he’s the enemy, so we’ve got to get after it.”

The storied Tennessee-Alabama rivalry has been heavily lopsided in recent years with the defending national champion Crimson Tide having won the last 14 games. UT’s last win against Alabama came in 2006 in Knoxville, and its last road win in the series was in 2003 (five overtimes).

The 14-game win streak is the longest for either team in the series that began in 1901. Alabama leads the series 58–37–8.

Tennessee is coming off a home loss to Ole Miss last weekend that was marred by abhorrent fan behavior. In the final minute of the game at Neyland Stadium, UT fans began littering the field with debris after objecting to the officials ruling the Vols came up short on a fourth-down attempt.

The actions caused nearly a 20-minute delay as administrators tried to figure out a way for the game to resume safely.

The Southeastern Conference fined Tennessee $250,000, which will be deducted from the university’s share of the SEC revenue distribution. The conference also required UT to review its game management and alcohol availability policies, and use all available resources to identify individuals who threw objects onto the field.

Although not excusing the behavior, UT head coach Josh Heupel says he doesn’t think it’s representative of the majority of UT fans and that he appreciates the “passion and energy” that reverberated during the first home sellout since 2017.

“I’ve been in a lot of competitive arenas as a player and as a coach. There was nothing better that I’ve ever been in than what happened Saturday night,” Heupel says.

As it prepares to face Alabama, Tennessee received potentially promising news on the injury front.

Heupel said earlier this week that quarterback Hendon Hooker, running back Tiyon Evans and offensive lineman Cade Mays were “day-to-day.”

There was worry when Hooker left the field late in the game against Ole Miss without being able to put weight on his right leg.

“I don’t think it’s a long-term injury,” Heupel said. “As for his status for this week, we’ll find out as we go.”

Hooker has injected a spark in the UT offense while starting the last five games.

The dual-threat redshirt senior from Virginia Tech has completed 95 of 135 passes for 1,296 yards, 18 touchdowns and only one interception. He’s rushed for 390 yards and four touchdowns.

If Hooker can’t play, UT’s quarterback options are Michigan transfer Joe Milton III or sophomore Harrison Bailey.

Milton won the starting job entering the season but was erratic in his appearances before suffering an injury against Pittsburgh and being replaced by Hooker.

Milton had a chance to rally the Vols for the tie or win against Ole Miss, but perplexingly scrambled out of bounds instead of throwing the ball as time expired.

“I don’t care if you’re the backup quarterback, the backup center, the backup D tackle, the backup safety - you prepare like you are the starter,” Heupel says. “That’s the tough thing about sports and the really tough thing about the quarterback position, because you never know when your opportunity is going to come, and you better be ready for it.”

Tennessee is in the midst of playing four consecutive ranked SEC opponents. After the Crimson Tide, the Vols get a bye week to rest before playing at No. 15 Kentucky (6-1, 4-1) and at home against top-ranked Georgia (7-0, 5-0).

“It’s all about answering the challenge,” Carvin adds. “That’s what we come here to do. It’s the SEC, that’s what we came here for, you play tough opponents.”

Given some of the adversity UT has already experienced, Heupel says he has no doubt the Vols will be ready to play Alabama. It will be another gauge of the progress the program is making in Heupel’s first season on Rocky Top.

“I just believe in the competitive spirit inside of our building,” Heupel says. “I believe what we’re building, the effort and strain that they’re playing with.

“The other night wasn’t perfect, but at no point did you ever question the effort and the ‘want-to.’ I believe in who those guys are and as you build a program, that’s the first place that it starts.”

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