The Tennessee Vols and new head coach Josh Heupel currently sit at 4-4 through eight games. With key matchups against Kentucky and Georgia coming up after the bye week, Heupel’s coaching will be more important than ever in the final stretch of the 2021 season.

So, let’s take a look at how Heupel’s coaching has fared so far and give him a letter grade for how he’s handled the craziness that is being the CEO of UT’s football program…

Offense: A- 

This one is a no-brainer. Heupel and his offensive coordinator, Alex Golesh, took a previously horrific Tennessee offense and turned it into an efficient machine that’s led by a dynamic quarterback that has gotten national buzz for his performances. In short, the Vols ended 2020 with the 102nd-ranked offense in America and they currently sit at 22nd in total offense nationally. And this incredible change has come while contending with injuries to key players like running back Tiyon Evans and offensive lineman Cade Mays.

I do have to knock the grade down slightly because there have been occasions where it’s seemed like Heupel’s situational play calling could be better. The offense has struggled in short-yardage situations and Heupel’s two-minute strategy of keeping a fast pace and not calling timeouts is questionable. Also, offensive penalties have been an ongoing problem and it seems that he’s still getting his feet underneath him as an SEC coach.

I won’t make too tough of a judgment on these elements, though, because, to some extent, I think they could be ironed out if Heupel had a better roster. His offense has generally been a blast to watch so far and I’m excited to see how it evolves going forward.

Defense: B+

Purely by the numbers, the Vols haven’t had the most impressive defensive performances. They have the No. 10 defense in the SEC and are giving up 394 yards and 27 points per game. But when taking into consideration the preseason expectations for defensive coordinator Tim Banks and his squad and weighing the fact that they play across from a breakneck offense that often leaves Tennessee’s defense on the field for excessive amounts of game time, Banks could be considered a borderline miracle worker.

Only three defenses in all of college football have been on the field for more plays than UT’s defensive unit. They’ve faced 617 plays so far, which translates to about 77 plays per game. But out of all of the teams in college football that have faced 600+ plays, Tennessee is giving up the least amount of yards per play (5.11) and the least amount of overall yards per game (394). The Big Orange defense is being pushed about as hard as it possibly could be and it’s been holding up remarkably well.

The overall effort and grit of the Vols’ defense has been undeniable despite a concerning lack of depth. They lead the nation in tackles for loss with 70 and rank in the top 25 nationally in both interceptions and sacks. Sure, Banks’ defense has hemorrhaged a fair amount of yards and points but given the circumstances, I can’t say I’ve been anything but impressed.

Special Teams: C

Special teams is undoubtedly the area of Tennessee’s football team that I’ve had the most to directly gripe about. Special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler has a fun Twitter account but his unit has given up a kickoff return for a touchdown, a couple of other sizable kickoff returns, and Velus Jones had a destructive muffed punt against Ole Miss. They’re also middling in most stats like kickoff return yards at 24 yards per return. But, UT’s special teams has blocked two punts and kicker Chase McGrath has made 8 of 10 field goals. Given all of those elements, I think it all comes out in the wash to a flat C grade. Not great, not bad, but could be better.

Overall: B+

If there was no context given to Josh Heupel’s tenure so far at Tennessee, I think his stats and record alone would warrant something like a C+/B- overall grade, but we all know the backstory here…

No team had more players enter the transfer portal than the Vols. UT got a new athletics director and is still in the middle of a horrific self-imposed NCAA investigation. Heupel’s roster is thinner than a piece of parchment paper and that roster has constantly fought the injury bug. But despite all of these factors working against him, Heupel has collected four wins, came a hair’s breadth away from knocking off a top 10 team in Ole Miss, and played tough for three quarters with Alabama. And perhaps the best part is that he’s done that much and there’s a lot of room for growth.

I probably would have bumped my grade up into “A” territory if Tennessee didn’t rank 10th in the SEC in penalty yards and Heupel smoothed out some of the rough edges of his play-calling. Also, this probably goes without saying, but UT needs a great showing on the recruiting trail for Heupel to have long-term success. But I’ll have to get closer to signing day before I make any harsh judgments on Heupel’s recruiting prowess.

As a battered and broken Vol football fan, I have a hard time saying a coach has truly impressed me but Heupel has so far. I like what I’ve seen and he’s avoided some of the red flags that we’ve seen from our coaching failures in the past. Perhaps I’m getting soft as I get older but if Heupel can continue to improve and bring the same competence and tenacity that he has in his first eight games, I’ll gladly endorse the Heup Train.

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