Inevitable or not, this hasn't been an ideal start for Josh Heupel at Tennessee
Here’s a list of headlines related to Tennessee football during the first 2-plus months of the Josh Heupel era.
“Multiple Tennessee players arrested, face drug charges.”
“Tennessee announces suspension of QB Kaidon Salter.”
“High school coach rips Tennessee for pulling scholarship offer right before National Signing Day.”
“5-star QB Ty Simpson reveals why he chose Alabama over Tennessee.”
“Tennessee player accused of abusing kitten.”
That doesn’t include the fact that it took Josh Heupel nearly 3 weeks to hire his defensive coordinator, or that he’s had significant roster attrition, especially on defense.
This hasn’t been an ideal start to Heupel’s time in Knoxville. Anyone arguing the contrary is ignoring those headlines. That’s fine. Some would say that stuff like that happens everywhere.
(Well, except maybe the kitten abuse. That was just sad and bizarre.)
You could also perhaps make the case that Heupel, given the situation that he sailed into, was destined to hit some treacherous waters. Roster turnover during a Power 5 coaching change is something you can set your watch to. You know, like Tennessee losing to a top-10 team.
OK, that was mean. No more cheap jabs. I promise.
It’s fair to give Heupel a bit of a break for some of the things that were out of his control. It’s harder to sympathize with Heupel for the situations he could’ve handled differently.
I’ve already gone in depth about pulling the scholarship offer, and how Heupel’s biggest mistake was not even calling the kid. That’s a “welcome to the big time” moment for Heupel. You can get away with that at UCF, but it’s different when you’re the head coach at a Power 5 school with a massive following.
That’s not an unforgivable mistake. None of Heupel’s mistakes are unforgivable. They’re just … not the best look.
Like, it’s not the best look when your incoming blue-chip quarterback recruit is suspended before he plays a game because of a drug-related arrest. It doesn’t portray the message of “this kid is locked in and ready to win a wide-open quarterback competition.” Salter made a mistake, and not an unforgivable one. He can bounce back.
Heupel can bounce back from all of those things. At least he can to a certain extent.
Bouncing back from missing out on a massive in-state recruit like Simpson is 1 of 2 things. It’s either flipping Simpson by Signing Day or signing a 2022 quarterback recruit who is just as highly regarded as the Alabama pledge. Part of that process would likely include Heupel’s offense putting up monster numbers in Year 1. Winning is the great equalizer for any program that can’t seem to avoid the negative headlines.
Of course, that’ll be easier said than done because of the hurdles Tennessee faces on defense.
It’s not fair to put all the blame on Heupel for the entirety of the head-scratching Kevin Steele situation, but it is something that could have a direct impact on the 2021 defensive outlook. Tennessee agreed to pay Steele $900,000, which without any context, seems perfectly normal. There were 34 FBS assistants who made that much in 2020, more than half of whom were from the SEC. The problem, of course, was that Steele got that $900,000 for 2 months of work … which didn’t include a game … or even a spring practice.
Clearly, Heupel wanted to start fresh. Steele was hired before he arrived and he served as the interim coach during the search. It took 3 weeks worth of public rejections before Heupel hired Tim Banks, who could wind up being an excellent defensive coordinator, but he was second in command on Penn State’s defense and he’s now set to make more in Year 1 than all but 12 FBS assistants made in 2020.
Again, winning is the equalizer. If Banks leads Tennessee to even an average season on defense, the 3 weeks it took to fill the position and the hefty salary will be an afterthought.
Based on how things have gone so far, though, I wouldn’t bank on that (forgive the weak pun).
Star linebackers Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch are still in the transfer portal. Even as reports swirl about their reported next moves, it’s still unfair to assume they’re going to be talked into returning.
The Vols have had 29 players from the 2020 team enter the transfer portal, and that doesn’t include releasing 4-star linebacker Dylan Brooks (he’s at Auburn now) or 4-star running back Cody Brown (he’s at Miami now) from their letter of intent.
Let’s stick with the defense because that’s where the Vols are really going to need help.
Remember the kitten abuse headline? That was linebacker Aaron Beasley, who is now suspended indefinitely. Including suspended linebackers Aaron Willis and Martavius French, along with the injured Jeremy Banks, the linebacker room is suddenly in a world of hurt:
Inside linebacker room since last year:
To’oto’o – Transfer Portal
Crouch – Transfer Portal
Banks – Injury Rehab, no timetable for return
Beasley – Suspended Indefinitely
French – Suspended Indefinitely
Willis – Suspended Indefinitely https://t.co/4Iicsm6r8F
— Austin Burlage (@Power_T_Tape) April 5, 2021
All of that was after losing the likes of DeAndre Johnson (transferred to Miami after leading the team in sacks), JJ Peterson (top 2018 signee) and Kivon Bennett (dismissed on guns and weapons charges).
Roster attrition is to be expected. Having 14 players from 1 side of the ball hit the portal isn’t to be expected. Heupel could still theoretically get some of those guys back, though one has to wonder how likely that is when he’s been on the job for more than 2 months.
To be honest, I don’t know that Heupel bounces back from that. This is the same guy who has a history of yielding unsuccessful defensive units alongside his home-run hitting, all-or-nothing offense. It was telling that UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir said at Gus Malzahn’s opening press conference that when he talked to UCF players about what they wanted in their next offensive-minded coach, they told him they should hire someone who played “complementary” football. That’s not Heupel’s thing.
Heupel is going to play his brand of football in Year 1 at Tennessee. Will it be complementary? Probably not. Can it still at least establish an offensive identity? Definitely. He’s got a more than capable quarterback room, and as he said, receivers are set up well to have success in his offense.
Don’t consider this as a way of saying that Heupel is completely lost. He’s not. Moves like this show that there are big-picture elements of this gig that he understands:
Sounds like @Vol_Football is finalizing details & logistics to host an open practice Saturday morning inside @Neyland_Stadium beginning around 10. Would be a smart goodwill gesture from @coachjoshheupel & the #Vols
— John Brice (@JohnDBrice1) April 6, 2021
By the way, that would allow recruits to get on campus and at least step inside the stadium (no coach contact). That seems like a wise choice after weeks of (mostly) negative headlines.
There’s only so much Heupel can do to gain fan support in the coming months. Fan support in Knoxville, as we know, is unique. See Schiano, Greg. So much of Heupel’s relationship with the fanbase has yet to be determined. Nothing is set in stone after 2 months on the job.
With each headline, we’ve been reminded that Tennessee, even with a new regime, is still very much a work in progress.
Until further notice, the same goes for Heupel.