The college football offseason is less than a month old, but there are already a couple of things that Tennessee Vols head coach Josh Heupel should be praised for doing.

Thanks to the NCAA transfer portal and the early signing period, December and the first half of January have become one of the busiest times of the year for college football programs.

Preparing for a bowl game, putting the finishing touches on a recruiting class, dealing with staff changes, retaining players currently on the roster, evaluating players in the NCAA transfer portal, and lining up visits are the tasks that coaches have on their plate this time of year.

And Heupel has navigated it all extremely well — especially in two particular areas.

Vols
Tennessee Head Coach Josh Heupel during Tennessee football practice at Haslam Field in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022. The Vols are preparing to play in the Orange Bowl against Clemson on Dec. 30.
Ut Football Practice

1. Retaining key players on current roster

Here’s the thing about the NCAA transfer portal — every player is essentially in the portal at the end of each season. Sure, the NCAA rules say that programs can’t “tamper” with players not in the portal, but it’s happening.

Coaches — at least coaches who are smart and not prone to making NCAA mistakes — aren’t reaching out to kids directly. They’ll use various backchannels to communicate to keep their hands clean (like talking through former teammates or high school coaches). Sometimes it’s the player reaching out to the program to see if there’s any interest — it’s a road that goes both ways.

Regardless of how the communication happens, the point is that every player on every roster is at risk of being recruited by another program.

The Vols lost some players to the transfer portal after the 2022 season, but there were no major surprises. The players who left weren’t key starters or guys who were expected to start. Instead, Tennessee lost players who were mostly in search of playing time. And they didn’t transfer to rival SEC programs.

Heupel and his staff did an excellent job of not losing any impact players that were expected to be key contributors in 2023. And that’s a sign of a rising program. The elite teams don’t have players poached from them — they do the poaching. Heupel deserves a lot of credit for keeping the core of his roster intact this offseason.

2. Properly utilizing the transfer portal

Tennessee didn’t go crazy in the transfer portal — they only added eight total transfers.

But that’s the correct way to utilize the portal. The best way to build a program is still through recruiting high school players. The portal is simply a good way to quickly fill roster holes and close the gap (or at least try to close the gap) with programs like Georgia.

Tennessee has a good thing going with the culture that Heupel and his staff have built in Knoxville. Bringing in a wave of transfers can disrupt the culture. Heupel was selective in who he took from the portal. They didn’t go after just anyone and they didn’t take a player just for the sake of adding a body to the roster. They made sure each player filled a need and fit the culture at UT.

  • McCallan Castles — TE — UC-Davis
  • Keenan Pili — LB — BYU
  • Andrej Karic — OL — Texas
  • Charles Campbell — K — Indiana
  • John Campbell Jr — OL — Miami
  • Gabe Jeudy-Lally — DB — BYU
  • Omarr Norman-Lott — DL — Arizona State
  • Dont’e Thornton — WR — Oregon

Each of those players fills a very specific need that Tennessee had on its roster after the 2022 season.

Karic and Campbell Jr will replace Jerome Carvin and Darnell Wright. The other Campbell replaces Chase McGrath. Pili will replace Juwan Mitchell, who hit the transfer portal (as expected) after the Orange Bowl. Castles replaces Princeton Fant. Jeudy-Lally, Norman-Lott, and Thornton ensure that Tennessee will have proper depth at three key positions (those three guys will likely start, giving the Vols more depth from top to bottom).

Heupel didn’t make any massive portal splashes — he didn’t need to — and he didn’t reach for players. He correctly navigated his way through the portal and picked up some solid additions that will help fill the gaps between the 2022 roster and the 2023 signees who should fill some of these roles in the coming seasons.

There’s obviously a lot of work still to be done ahead of the 2023 season — especially if the Vols want to take down Georgia for the first time since 2016 — but the beginning of Heupel’s second offseason on Rocky Top couldn’t be off to a better start.

Featured image via Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

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