KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The Tennessee Volunteers are heading into their showdown with in-state rival Vanderbilt looking to finish strong. With a victory the Vols will have reached seven wins on the season for the first time since 2019.

While that was only two years ago, a lot has changed. Josh Heupel is now the head coach, and he fully believes this season is the start of something special.

“I think a lot of coaches will tell you when they go into a new program, the older guys are the toughest guys to get to buy into it because they feel like they’re on the back end of their careers,” Heupel said. “To me, that hasn’t been the case at all inside of our program.

“I think we’ve had great buy-in from everyone throughout the course of the process. … I felt like the buy-in continued to grow throughout the course of it.”

He added that actions speak louder than words and the team’s consistency in the first few weeks was important.

Vols defensive lineman having a career year

One of the players that bought in is defensive lineman Ja’Quain Blakely. He’s been rewarded with the decision to stay on Rocky Top. The redshirt senior is putting up career numbers with 25 tackles, including five of them for a loss.

“I never really had the thought about leaving,” Blakely said. “I feel like God sent me here, and I felt I had something that I needed to do. I had work to be done here. That went into my decision to stay, but as far as the rewarding part, I do feel that me staying helped me gain a lot as a player and as a man after football. So I am glad I stayed.”

Blakely added that he had done his research on the coaching staff before they started practicing. He said he knew they came in here for one thing and that was to win.

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