What are Heupel's top personnel priorities for next season?
New Tennessee coach Josh Heupel arrives on Rocky Top after a successful stint at UCF. However, the former Oklahoma quarterback is inheriting a lengthy list of personnel question marks to address this offseason. The Volunteers finished 3-7 last fall, ranked near the bottom of the SEC in scoring offense, and gave up 30.1 points a game. As if fixing the on-field issues and overall play wasn't enough, roster management is atop the priority list after a couple of key players hit the transfer portal in January. Adjusting to Heupel's up-tempo offense will be a challenge for a Tennessee team that managed just 66 plays per game in 2020.
For every new coach, the to-do list after the initial press conference is pretty standard. The head coach has to recruit, implement scheme changes, build a staff of quality assistants and coordinators, discuss potential NFL draft impact with juniors and work on any facility or support staff requests. Needless to say, that’s a lot.
While every coach has those goals in mind, it’s never too early to look at some of the personnel concerns surrounding a program and a new coach for the upcoming year.
Here’s an early look at five personnel question marks for Heupel to address in 2021:
Tennessee Football: 5 Priorities for New Coach Josh Heupel in 2021
1. The QB Room
Tennessee’s quarterback room features a couple of players with experience on Rocky Top in Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer. However, incoming freshman Kaidon Salter and Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker will provide competition this offseason. Salter rated as the No. 6 dual-threat quarterback in the 247Sports Composite, while Hooker arrives in Knoxville after throwing for 2,894 yards and 22 scores and adding 1,033 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground with the Hokies. Bailey – a four-star prospect in the 2020 class – showed promising signs in limited action (70.6 completion percentage) in limited snaps. Of the four quarterbacks receiving playing time last fall, Maurer had the fewest pass attempts (six) and recorded just one over the team’s final four games. Heupel’s scheme requires quarterbacks to thrive at pre-snap reads, making fast decisions, and be able to push the ball downfield to win one-on-one battles. Bailey would seem to have the inside track to be the top quarterback going into 2021, but a new system and additions to the quarterback room certainly add uncertainty to this situation.
2. Find Playmakers
It’s no secret that Heupel has to identify a quarterback to make his offense go in 2021. But Tennessee was also hit hard by transfers at the skill positions, and there are major voids to fill at running back and receiver this offseason. Top running backs Eric Gray (Oklahoma) and Ty Chandler (North Carolina) transferred after accounting for 86.8 percent of the rushing production in 2020. Jabari Small (117 yards) ranked third on the team in rushing last season, with Dee Beckwith (25) the only other running back that saw significant snaps. Tee Hodge did not record a carry as a freshman in 2020 but should factor into the mix in ’21, along with incoming freshman Cody Brown and junior college recruit Tiyon Evans. Just three wide receivers caught at least 20 passes last year. Josh Palmer (33) opted to depart for the NFL, leaving Velus Jones (22) and Jalin Hyatt (20) as the top options. Heupel’s system will require more than just two receivers to be active in the passing game, so a couple of key recruits from 2020 – Malachi Wideman, Jimmy Calloway and Jimmy Holiday – should see opportunities to earn playing time this offseason.
3. Rebuild the Offensive Line
The Tennessee offensive line was expected to be a strength in 2020 but didn’t quite live up to the hype. This unit allowed 29 sacks and cleared the way for rushers to average only 3.8 yards per carry over 10 games. Left tackle Wanya Morris transferred to Oklahoma, while guard Trey Smith and center Brandon Kennedy are off to the next level. Also, Jahmir Johnson (five starts) transferred to Texas A&M. The news isn’t all bad up front though, as Cade Mays and Darnell Wright are back to anchor the rebuilt line. Also, Cooper Mays and Jerome Carvin return to provide options on the interior. Four offensive linemen, including junior college product Jeremiah Crawford, join from the ’21 signing class. The change in offensive system to utilize more tempo and plays will also challenge the depth of this unit.
4. Rebuild the Linebacker Unit
The new defensive staff will be starting over at linebacker after this unit was hit hard by transfers. Henry To’o To’o – the defense’s best player – entered the portal in late January. He was joined by Quavaris Crouch, J.J. Peterson and Deandre Johnson in the portal, leaving very little experience, depth or returning production. Jeremy Banks (28 tackles) would be the top returning statistical leader at linebacker, with Tyler Baron (21), Aaron Beasley (seven) and Roman Harrison (seven) also back for 2021.
5. Find Defensive Difference-Makers Up Front
At Heupel’s introductory press conference, he indicated Tennessee’s defense would be multiple, aggressive and have the ability to bring pressure to create negative plays. The new defensive staff will certainly look at moving some players from linebacker to end and from end to linebacker to create depth on a thin front seven. Also, the secondary has room to improve and must replace cornerback Bryce Thompson. In order for the Volunteers to execute on that aggressive mantra for the defense, finding difference-makers up front is crucial. The top two players in sack production – Kivon Bennett and Deandre Johnson – have departed. Also, Tennessee has had just two players – Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt – reach double-digit sacks in a season since 2009. This unit has to get better in situational football. The Volunteers ranked 12th in the SEC in third-down defense, 10th in the red zone, 12th in turnovers forced, and eighth in tackles for a loss.
(Top photo courtesy of @Vol_Football)