Why it's not surprising that Josh Heupel's defensive coordinator search hasn't been a quick one
If there was an over/under on how long it would take Josh Heupel to find a defensive coordinator, I would’ve taken the over. In hindsight, that seems obvious.
There were a variety of reasons besides the obvious one. That is, the Vols have a ton of players in the transfer portal following the internal investigation into Jeremy Pruitt’s recruiting. That alone was always going to make this a tricky situation.
Heupel is now 2 weeks into his time at Tennessee and he has yet to make his most important hire. He’s reportedly in conversations with Ohio State linebackers coach Al Washington to take the job after receiving an offer more than double his current salary.
So far, Heupel was reportedly turned down by Louisville defensive coordinator Bryan Brown. Given the wild year that Scott Satterfield had putting his foot in his mouth at Louisville, let’s call that one, um, telling. Brown did get a promotion out of it, but still.
Heupel was also reportedly turned down by USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. Apparently poaching the same position from other Power 5 programs apparently isn’t limited to the head coaching position, which Tennessee hasn’t done since stealing Johnny Majors from Pitt in 1977.
Kevin Steele, who led top 20 defenses in 4 of the last 5 seasons at Auburn, is apparently still on staff but not as the defensive coordinator. An SEC East rival told FootballScoop.com something that makes a lot of sense:
“Steele is not a fit schematically based on what (the Vols) are going to do on offense. He is the type of guy to sit back and not beat himself schematically. However, I am completely against playing that way when your entire offensive game plan is based around creating possessions. You need a super-aggressive defensive coordinator to create negative plays and turnovers.”
(I immediately thought of the 3-1-7 that Steele rolled out against that historically good 2019 LSU offense and nodded my head as I read that.)
Ah, and therein lies why this process isn’t easy. You know, besides the obvious. Despite the fact that Heupel could offer total control of the defense and likely a pretty nice 7-figure salary to all of those candidates, it’s about what’s going to work with Heupel’s offense. Ask any Mizzou fan about those 2016-17 teams and they’ll say as fun as it was to watch Drew Lock’s growth, the offense put far too much pressure on Barry Odom’s defense. It’s all or nothing. It isn’t about running 10-play drives and taking time off the clock. The same was true at UCF.
Ever since Heupel reinvented himself after getting fired at Oklahoma in 2014, look at where his teams ranked in scoring defense and time of possession (FBS rankings):
In case you were wondering, Barry Odom’s defense was No. 5 in FBS the year before Heupel arrived at Mizzou. The year after Heupel left Columbia for UCF, Mizzou’s defense improved by a full touchdown.
That’s the price you pay for signing up for Heupel’s prolific offense. Your defense is going to be on the field a ton, and it won’t be getting a lot of rest. Even if your defense is getting points to work with, that’s still a lot to ask.
It’s not that Heupel’s defensive coordinator is destined for failure; it’s just not set up for success.
That’s before we dig into the whole “you’ve got annual dates with Alabama, Florida and Georgia offenses” thing. Even if Tennessee wasn’t dealing with major roster turnover and an NCAA investigation, that’s why it probably didn’t make much sense for a current Power 5 defensive coordinator to leave for that job.
The only situation in which that would’ve worked would’ve been poaching a defensive coordinator who has a defensive-minded head coach. Those, however, seem to be coming less and less common. With Heupel taking over for Pruitt, 10 of the SEC’s 14 head coaches are offensive-minded. Tennessee’s situation is becoming more and more common. Go out and get an offensive-minded head coach who calls plays, and let the defensive coordinator have total autonomy.
In many ways, that’s attractive. One can do worse than getting paid 7 figures to have that kind of control in a place with a fanbase as rabid as any. Surely that’s a selling point for Heupel.
But the combination of those “not set up for success” reasons combined with Heupel being selective to hire his top assistant was inevitably going to make this a drawn out process. It would’ve been surprising if Heupel, once he decided Steele wasn’t going to run the defense, made a hire in that first week. Lord knows he had plenty on his plate with a staff to hire and a recruiting class to lock down.
This wasn’t something that needed to be rushed. It needed to be right.
For whatever reason, it’s been a well-documented struggle for the top Tennessee assistant to succeed in the post-Phillip Fulmer/John Chavis era. Seven-figure salaries didn’t matter for past Tennessee assistants like Bob Shoop, Tyson Helton and Jim Chaney. All struggled and all couldn’t provide the kind of value Vols fans hoped. Given the incredible amount of staff turnover of the Pruitt era — and not necessarily the good kind — it’d be a new norm to actually have a successful top hire.
File that one under the first of many trends Heupel needs to flip in Knoxville.