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Josh Heupel’s offenses: By the numbers

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One reason for optimism.

Mike Bianchi: Lane Kiffin is right: UCF belongs in the SEC Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Tennessee has hired UCF coach Josh Heupel to replace Jeremy Pruitt, who was fired due to infractions found in an internal recruiting investigation. Heupel is known for his offensive mind after spending time at Oklahoma, UCF and Missouri. He was able to go 28-8 in three seasons at UCF, and now takes on the massive challenge of totally overhauling the Tennessee football program — one that won just three games in 2020.

The hire on the surface is underwhelming, let’s face it. There were rumors of James Franklin, and plenty of fans had their eye on Lane Kiffin, Hugh Freeze or even Jamey Chadwell. However, new Tennessee athletics director stuck with the man he hired back in 2017. We hadn’t heard Heupel’s name much in the search, begging the question — how many times did White get turned down?

Regardless, this is a complete system change for the Tennessee football program, one that was badly needed. Gone are the days of the I-formation and jumbo sets. Enter the ‘Spread-Iso’ offense.

Here’s some background on Heupel’s attack, from Football Study Hall

Heupel runs his own take on the Art Briles “veer and shoot” offense. He began to adopt that approach with the 2014 Oklahoma Sooners after seeing Briles’ O first hand, giving QB Trevor Knight RPOs and regular deep shots in order to try and keep defenses from getting enough numbers to the box. It wasn’t widely recognized as a spread-iso system because they spent a good deal of time in 21 personnel from the shotgun, with converted QB Blake Bell as an H-back and working with bruising fullback Aaron Ripkowski and a massive offensive line.

All that beef up front made a way for freshman RB Samaje Perine to run for 1713 yards at 6.5 ypc with 21 TDs. But Trevor Knight struggled to connect with the isolation options to their WRs and threw for only 6.3 ypa with a 14-12 TD/INT ratio. The Sooners went 8-5 and Bob Stoops fired Heupel to bring in wunderkind Lincoln Riley.

Go ahead and read that full piece here. Now for the numbers, as promised.

If you’re looking to talk yourself into this hire, keep reading. The offensive numbers from Heupel’s units are impressive, consistently ranking inside the top ten nationally. You may say, well it’s just the AAC, but Heupel does have experience racking up yardage already in the SEC ranks, thanks to his stop at Missouri.

Check them out below for yourself.

Heupel’s offense at UCF

  • 2018: 523 yards per game (4th in the FBS), 6.9 yards per play (10th in the FBS), 11th in S&P+
  • 2019: 541.5 yards per game (2nd in the FBS), 6.9 yards per play (8th in the FBS), 14th in S&P+
  • 2020: 568 yards per game (2nd in the FBS), 6.6 yards per play (21st in the FBS), 12th in FEI

Heupel’s time at Missouri as offensive coordinator

  • 2016: 500 yards per game (13th in the FBS), 6.3 yards per play (32nd in FBS), 54th in S&P+
  • 2017: 503 yards per game (8th in FBS), 7.2 yards per play (6th in FBS), 24th in S&P+

Key Individual Stats

  • 2017 Missouri Offense: Drew Lock throws for 3,964 yards, 44 touchdowns. Also had a 1,000 yard rusher in Ish Witter.
  • 2018 UCF rushing attack: Backs Adrian Killings and Greg McCrae combine for over 2,300 yards from scrimmage.
  • 2019 UCF Offense: Dillon Gabriel throws for 3,653 yards and 29 touchdowns. Gabriel Davis hauls in 72 passes for 1,241 yards and 12 scores

In his three years with the Knights, Heupel’s offenses scored less than 30 points just three times. When you look at it from that perspective, up against Tennessee’s offensive struggles over the past four seasons, it’s easy to be excited for a different brand of football.

Clearly, I’m leaving out a key piece of the equation here, which is the defense. Heupel’s defensive coordinator hire will easily be the most important one he makes. A proven SEC recruiter would be a big get for Heupel, which begs the question — would Kevin Steele stay on board? For clarity, UCF ranked 123rd in total defense in 2020. That simply won’t cut it, and Heupel likely knows that.

While questions certainly do remain, it’s at least a total facelift for Tennessee offensively — something that was greatly overdue.