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VOL. 45 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 3, 2021

Last 1-year UT coach sent program on 11-year slide

By Rhiannon Potkey

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First-year coach Josh Heupel has given the Vols a lift, but for how long?

-- Photo By Jerry Denham |The Ledger

The vibe around UT football was different from the moment Josh Heupel arrived and remained so through the end of his first regular season.

Players were having more fun and looking forward to attending practices. They stayed later at the facility to hang out with each other and competed hard during games. No one was walking on eggshells or fearful of making mistakes.

Now there’s an understandable nervousness in the air as Oklahoma – where Heupel was an All-America quarterback in 2000 and finished second in Heisman Trophy balloting – continuess its search to replace head football coach Lincoln Riley, who left Sunday to take the same position at Southern Cal.

Heupel’s name had already been attached to a few coaching vacancies, but none taken as seriously as this. And with just one year at UT, a Heupel departure could prove as devastating to the UT program as when Lane Kiffin ended his one-year tenure Jan. 12, 2010.

The Vols were 66-69 overall and 29-61 in SEC play during those 11 seasons.

And given how quickly coaches are hired and fired in today’s college game – a pace driven by the transfer portal and the Dec. 15 early signing period for recruits – it’s a cinch the Oklahoma position won’t stay open long.

Heupel took over a program in a perpetual state of disfunction. Jeremy Pruitt – Tennessee’s third head coach since Kiffin bolted for USC – was fired in January amid alleged recruiting impropriates, and athletics director Phillip Fulmer retired soon after.

With no coach in place and an NCAA investigation hanging over the program, multiple players transferred before Heupel was hired to begin the latest resurrection attempt.

New coaches always talk about changing the culture. Heupel actually delivered, providing hope for a brighter future at a pace rivaling his trademark up-tempo offense.

Coming off a 3-7 season, the Vols had minimal expectations from outsiders and exceeded them. UT (7-5, 4-4 SEC) completed the regular-season Saturday with a 45-21 victory against in-state rival Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium. The Vols are bowl eligible and will learn their destination this weekend.

“The one thing that I and we have never done is as a team put a ceiling on this group, and they’ve responded to that, too,” Heupel says. “They believe in who they are and are confident in themselves not only as individuals but collectively as a group, too.”

Throughout their media appearances this season, UT players have praised Heupel and his coaching staff for the renewed enthusiasm they brought to the downtrodden program.

“He’s just been an energy-giver to us,” UT sophomore defensive lineman Omari Thomas says. “He’s just always high-energy every day. Positive. Always telling us we’re in a race against ourselves to be the best. He’s just always been there for us as a coach, and he’s always pushing us to be better every day.”

In his final game at Neyland, UT senior safety Theo Jackson returned an interception for a touchdown for the first time in his career. Although he won’t be around to contribute in future seasons, Jackson says he believes the program has established a strong base for success.

“When Coach Heup and all of them got here, the first thing they brought in was positivity (and) lifting up each other, and we bought into that,” Jackson adds. “(This can last) because there is no dropoff. When the young guys get in, they produce the way older ones do. I see that as being something that can last 10 years.”

Heupel and his staff knew the first priority when they arrived was gaining every player’s trust after all the turmoil they’d endured. No matter what schemes or style of play they showcased, the coaches knew it wouldn’t mean anything if the players didn’t believe they had their best interest at heart.

“I just try to pour into these young men like I remember my coaches poured into me when I played,” UT defensive line coach Rodney Garner explains. “Being a poor kid from a small town in Alabama, I think the kids, they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

There is still uncertainty. The Vols lost a key running back last week when Tiyon Evans announced he was leaving the program.

Redshirt senior quarterback Hendon Hooker has another year of eligibility remaining and didn’t take part in Senior Day ceremonies Saturday. Hooker says he’s still weighing his options about whether to return to UT or declare for the NFL Draft.

“Just praying on it. I don’t know (when),” Hooker says. “Whenever that time is right, just talking with my family and Coach Heup. When the time is right, a decision will be made.”

After the win against Vandy, Heupel praised the progress the Vols made the last few months given all the changes and adversity they faced in the offseason.

“Important for our program that we grew throughout the course of the season,” Heupel points out. “You guys have seen our kids respond and grow throughout the course of the season. They’re great competitors, which is the first thing that you have to have inside of your program. Very consistent in that behavior.”

With the early signing period starting Dec. 15, the UT coaches will be on the road recruiting for the next two weeks before the Vols begin bowl preparations.

If the staff remains intact, coaches will have tangible evidence of progress to sell to future players and the allure of helping rebuild the program into a national contender. Although seven wins and a mid-tier bowl is considered a success this season, it won’t be enough for the future. The Vols have higher goals and aspirations to reach, and they believe it’s possible.

“This is just the first season with Coach Heupel,” sophomore running back Jabari Small says. “We haven’t reached the ceiling or the peak of where we can be.

“In the coming years, we are very excited just to see the whole team buy into what Coach Heupel is doing. And we have some young players in the first year in the system. The future is bright, I think.”

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