Josh Heupel was officially hired by the University of Tennessee on January 27th, 2021. It was one year ago this week when he was introduced as the head man in Knoxville and the official Tennessee Football Twitter account posted a video on Thursday documenting the last 365 days…
Year 1.— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) January 28, 2022
Delivered on his promises. pic.twitter.com/rpe5iVv9Dx
It’s unsurprising that the University would say that Heupel delivered on his promises but is that totally true? Let’s take a quick look and give a grade to Heupel’s initial season in orange and white, on and off the field…
Offense – A
As far as Heupel’s promises about offense go, the guy delivered and more. UT’s offense after Hendon Hooker stepped in at quarterback during week 2 was absolutely electric. We’ve covered the historic numbers previously on A to Z but to put it shortly, Tennessee had one of its best offenses in school history in 2021. And the best news of all is that a big chunk of the players that made great plays all season are returning.
I do have to ding Heupel somewhat because he’s questionable calling plays in short-yardage situations and I’m not in love with his in-game time management abilities but on the whole, his offensive coaching was more than satisfactory.
Defense – C-
Now, this is where I get conflicted when analyzing Heupel. The Vols’ defense got absolutely shredded at times this past season. It finished 12th in the SEC in total defense. But, to a certain extent, that’s by design.
Heupel uses a breakneck speedy offense to keep the opposing defense on its heels and in turn, his defense is on the field an excessive amount. Within that framing, the defense wasn’t totally horrendous but it certainly wasn’t great. They had some major problems tackling and at times, opposing offenses would run plays that could gash the Vols over and over and Tennessee seemed to be unable to scheme up and do much about it.
But with that said, you also have to take into consideration the complete lack of depth on this roster and the newly reported (but unconfirmed) information that UT was and still is purposefully limiting scholarships to get the NCAA off its back. Not to make excuses but it’s flat-out true that the defense was simply shorthanded all year.
I’ll wrap up the conversation about the defense like this: There is a ton of room for improvement and I sympathize with the lack of roster depth. So next season, let’s improve and let’s get some more warm bodies on the sidelines and see what happens then.
General Management – B
I couldn’t make this article 3000 words so I’m including a range of things in this last category. Within “general management” I’m considering elements like recruiting, media presence, efforts to connect with the Knoxville community, etc.
I think it’s safe to say that as far as UT fans are concerned, Heupel is as well-liked after year one as I’ve seen a Vols coach be since Lane Kiffin. He’s mild-mannered, level-headed, and comes off very affable in press conferences. He also doesn’t have a bunch of assistant coaches running to work for other programs like we’ve seen with other coaches in the recent past and it seems like guys genuinely like working under him.
Recruiting was fairly solid in the past year with Heupel but I’ll reserve any real judgment on that until the cloud of the NCAA investigation is lifted. And while he’s not out accosting fans to come to games like Bruce Pearl used to do, Heupel has a quiet magnetism that seems to be endearing to the Vol faithful. He stood up for the fanbase after the Ole Miss debacle and he’s embraced all of the UT traditions. Although, nothing will get the fanbase to love him more than continuing to win more games.
The bottom line here, and perhaps the most important element of Heupel’s management, is that he appears to truly be competent as the CEO of a college football program. I have yet to identify any real red flags from the guy. With Pruitt and Butch, there were plenty of red flags by the end of year one, if you were paying attention.
Heupel is far from perfect but I haven’t seen anything that genuinely trips my “coaching problem” alarm. He’s doing a nice job and I don’t know how anyone could make a great argument right now that he isn’t.
Overall Grade – B+
Heupel’s first season ended on a sour note, but that’s okay. He put together a fine recruiting class and seems to be on an upward trajectory with players like Hendon Hooker and Cedric Tillman returning. I have no idea if Heupel will be a championship-level coach, the jury is still very much out on that. But I at least have optimism, and frankly, that’s worth a lot considering what has transpired in the past 15 years for Tennessee.
I certainly hope I don’t have to come back to this in two years to mock my naivety but I’m happy to say that I think Vol football is currently in good hands.
Featured image via Saul Young/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services