Josh Heupel stood within the confines of Neyland Stadium in late January and thought back six years prior.
The former Oklahoma quarterback was fired then as the Sooners’ co-offensive coordinator, ending a nine-year coaching stint at his alma mater under his former coach Bob Stoops.
“It gave me a chance in some ways just to restart and look at what I wanted to do on the offensive side of the football,” said Heupel of his firing on Jan. 6, 2015.
Heupel figured it out, riding his offensive brilliance to coordinator opportunities at Utah State and Missouri and a head-coaching gig at UCF.
Now, he’s restarting a Tennessee football program that’s in shambles once again. Tennessee hired Heupel after three years at UCF to replace Jeremy Pruitt, who was fired after three years in Knoxville.
Tennessee fired Pruitt for cause, citing an investigation that revealed evidence of sweeping recruiting violations within the football program under his watch. UT Chancellor Donde Plowman called the investigation’s findings “stunning” based on the number of violations and scope of people involved. Inside linebackers coach Brian Niedermeyer and outside linebackers coach Shelton Felton were fired for cause. Seven support staff members, six of whom were either in the player personnel department or recruiting office, also were fired.
Athletics director Phillip Fulmer retired, exiting with Pruitt and setting up Tennessee’s hire of UCF athletics director Danny White. White plucked Heupel, his former coach at UCF, reuniting the duo at Tennessee.
White and Heupel face the same task that Fulmer and Pruitt ultimately failed at: bringing Tennessee back to national prominence. Heupel, 43, is Tennessee’s fifth head coach (not including interim coaches Jim Chaney and Brady Hoke) since Fulmer was dismissed in 2008. Butch Jones is the only coach to hold the post for longer than three seasons. He was fired during his fifth season in 2017, with Hoke coaching the final two games that year.
White’s path to hiring Heupel lasted less than a week, during which time White said he left no stone unturned. But his search ultimately led him back to his former school, where he had hired Heupel in December 2017.
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White stressed that he wanted a coach with character and integrity. He can vouch for Heupel in that department as well as anyone. He also stated that conversations with Tennessee players prior to the coaching search left him seeking a hire with “a little bit of confidence, a little bit of juice and a little bit of swagger.”
“From a fan perspective and an AD’s perspective, this is a pretty fun brand of football,” White says. “This is one of the most innovative minds in all of college football.”
As White said when he hired Heupel, the numbers speak for themselves. UCF ranked in the top eight nationally in scoring offense in each of Heupel’s three seasons. The Knights averaged at least 42.2 points per game each season with his up-tempo offense.
Tennessee averaged 21.5 points per game in 2020 and never averaged more than 24.2 per game in a season under Pruitt.
“We’re going to be the aggressor,” says Heupel, a native of Aberdeen, S.D. “We’re going to play with our skill players in space. We’re going to give them an opportunity to push the ball down the field. At the same time, if you watch what we do, we’re extremely balanced in our approach in terms of run and pass.”
Heupel, who won the 2000 BCS national championship as a quarterback at Oklahoma, has excelled with passing attacks in particular.
He led UCF to back-to-back top-10 passing seasons in his final two years in Orlando. The Knights passed for 316.7 yards per game in 2019 and 357.4 in 2020 to rank fourth nationally.
“(Heupel is) one of, if not the best developer of young quarterbacks in college football,” White says. “His reputation speaks for itself in what he’s been able to do as an offensive coach and as a developer of young quarterbacks.”
Heupel’s quarterback-centric mind is a welcome concept for Tennessee, which has endured lackluster quarterback play for the past four seasons. His first duty will be getting reliable quarterback production at UT for the first time since Joshua Dobbs graduated following the 2016 season.
Heupel inherits a bolstered quarterback room that will look a little different following the transfers of Jarrett Guarantano and J.T. Shrout. Touted freshman Kaidon Salter was dismissed from the team over the summer. Brian Maurer and Harrison Bailey return, and Pruitt’s staff added Virginia Tech graduate transfer Hendon Hooker. Michigan transfer Joe Milton joined the mix following spring practice.
Each of the options presents a different skill set. Bailey is the most traditional pocket passer of the group. Maurer is the most run-focused. Hooker falls somewhere in between. Milton lost the starting job at Michigan but injuries and the unusual 2020 season likely hindered his development.
Heupel is nonplussed about the differing skill sets.
“It’s about the makeup and the guy inside as much as it is anything,” Heupel says. “How competitive are they? I think that’s incredibly important. It drives them every day. What is their ability to react and respond to adverse situations? Can they wipe the slate clean from the previous play? Can they handle all the noise and all the pressure that’s going on around them, not just on game day, but in everyday life as they walk through campus? Can they meet the expectations and the work habits that you have to have?
“All of those little things add up to a guy playing at a championship level at that position. And if you’re going to chase championships, you better have a championship quarterback.”
Heupel has had success with a range of quarterbacks with different strengths. Pro-style quarterbacks Sam Bradford — who won the 2008 Heisman Trophy — and Landry Jones were terrific at Oklahoma during Heupel’s tenure as quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator. Missouri’s Drew Lock posted huge numbers with Heupel as his offensive coordinator.
At UCF, McKenzie Milton and Dillon Gabriel were among the nation’s passing leaders. Both were threats to run as well.
“That is a coach’s job,” Heupel says. “Understand who your players are and put them in a position of success. We’ll base what we do offensively, as far as our personnel groupings and some of the subtle schemes, based on what our personnel is. It’s grown and changed throughout the years, for sure.”
Bailey, Hooker and Maurer all have college starting experience. Bailey completed 70.6 percent of his passes in 2020 for 578 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions. He started the final three games. Maurer was a factor in 2019, when he started four games, although the athletic QB struggled in the passing game. He battled a hamstring injury in a limited role in 2020.
Hooker joins the group after starting 15 games for Virginia Tech, including seven of the Hokies’ final nine games in 2020. He threw for 2,894 yards with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions in the past two seasons. He also rushed for 1,033 yards and 15 touchdowns at Tech. Milton played in 14 games over three years at Michigan and threw for 1,194 yards and five touchdowns to six interceptions. His accuracy (57 percent in his career) has been hit-or-miss at times. However, the raw talent is obvious.
The quarterbacks battled during the spring to establish themselves in Heupel’s high-powered offense. The competition will roll into the preseason.
“What is separating those guys moving forward is who can operate in the system at a really high rate,” offensive coordinator Alex Golesh says. “It is all about decision-making there.”
Tennessee’s decision to hire Heupel will take some time to truly evaluate. He has inherited a flawed roster, especially defensively. His offense-focused mind likely will mask some of the deficiencies, as the Vols have enough skill players — and the scheme — to score points and compete.
His vision for the program likewise instills confidence in the future. He has preached establishing a connection between the players on his roster, which he says creates “a chance to love, (and) when you are able to love you are able to sacrifice for your teammates, and this game is all about sacrifice.”
Sometimes, it’s also about a fresh start. Tennessee knew it needed another one — and after finding success following his firing at Oklahoma, Heupel knows what fresh starts can accomplish.
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