Josh Heupel's mission: Get Tennessee to join the growing list of offense-minded programs. Now
The days of defenses winning championships are over, or at least have been temporarily put on hold. Outscoring the opposition is all the rage with the past 3 national title winners racking up the points. LSU led the nation in scoring during its 2019 championship run, and last season Alabama ranked 2nd in the nation in scoring en route to its trophy-winning season. Clemson had the No. 4 scoring offense in America when it won it all in 2018.
So Tennessee looks to join the party with the hiring of head coach Josh Heupel. In each of his 3 seasons at UCF, Heupel’s offenses ranked among the nation’s top 8 in scoring. His team’s ranked No. 2 nationally in total offense the past 2 seasons.
While coaches don’t like to make it about themselves, but rather the players who execute his game plan, Heupel nevertheless was indeed the focus of Media Days on Tuesday. And with good reason. It’s his program that’s drawing the attention on Rocky Top as the 2021 season continues to draw near. Especially considering the Vols ranked 102nd in the nation in total offense last season, and 108th in scoring (21.5 points per game average).
In his first SEC Media Days, Tennessee’s 6th head coach since 2009 talked about his offense and the philosophy behind it.
“This is a quarterback-friendly offense that’s going to allow us to play and apply pressure to defenses every single Saturday that we step on the football field,” said Heupel, who led the SEC in total offense both years (2016-17) as offensive coordinator at Missouri. “Obviously we understand that in this league the line of scrimmage is extremely important, too. But I think the tempo on the offensive side of the ball gives us the ability to create an advantage in that aspect.
“Certainly, we want to play fast with tempo. But as an entire football program, we want to play fast and be physical, but when I say the word ‘fast’ I’m talking about in the way that we play. Not just from play to play, but how we play the play. And to do that you’ve got to be able to put your kids in a position to understand what they’re doing, to unlock their natural opportunities of who they are, of their physical capabilities, and let them go.”
Back in the SEC, from offensive coordinator, now as head coach, Heupel said he relishes the new challenge.
Tennessee online sports betting officially launched on November 1, 2020, and many of the largest sportsbooks are live and operating in the volunteer state. Tennessee is only one of a handful of SEC football states with legalized sports betting.
“It’s great to be back in the SEC,” he said. “I’ve always admired this league. It’s a great honor to be the caretaker of Tennessee football at this time. I’m really proud of what our players and coaches have done in six months.”
Heupel, a former national champion and Heisman runner-up as a QB at Oklahoma, said he came to Tennessee not because of adversity but because of what he sees as a great opportunity.
“This is one of the iconic programs in all of college sports. We get an opportunity to celebrate the great traditions while putting a new-age approach on.”
He said his first priority was relationships, “That will be the foundation of everything that we do inside of our program,” Heupel said. Connection with the players, as well as recruits and alumni is a main focus. That’s the type of program he wants to have at Tennessee.
“We want to be innovative, but we want to have fun.”
Saturdays weren’t a lot of fun under Jeremy Pruitt.
Tennessee was hit hard by the transfer portal prior to Heupel’s arrival. But as he points out, it’s been a double-edged sword with 8 players added after spring practice.
“I feel really good about what we’ve added,” Heupel said. “A majority of those guys we feel like are going to play meaningful snaps right from the get-go when we kick off in September.”
Two key transfers will be among the 3 players vying for the starting quarterback position, the key to Heupel’s offense. Michigan transfer Joe Milton and Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, who many believe will win the starting job, are competing at the position with Harrison Bailey.
“Competition is the greatest friend that any coach has,” Heupel said of the battle for the starting spot. “You have to have it in that room. It’s going to drive the players.”
One of the three will win the spot and play perhaps the biggest role in Heupel’s start to his tenure at Tennessee.
“It’s really important that every other member of your team offensively and defensively sees that that guy has earned the opportunity to be your quarterback,” Heupel said. “When there’s a bad play, and there will be at some point, they’ve got to know that’s the right guy for them that’s leading that football team. And that only comes through time. So as we move, guys are going to earn more reps, guys will earn less reps. Once they’ve done that, we’re going to move at that rate. Looking forward to that competition.”
With 5 returning starters on offense and 7 more on defense from a team that went 3-7, the fewest number of victories at Tennessee since 1924, it seems there’s nowhere to go but up for the Vols.
“When you get the right alignment from president to chancellor to athletic director to head coach and you hire a great staff, and you’re consistent and you’re accountable, I feel like you have an opportunity to move things forward quickly,” Heupel said.
Quickly. That seems to be the key word for the Vols in 2021.