It took Josh Heupel about five weeks to really show what his program is going to look like in Knoxville. After some ups and downs, Tennessee won two ‘swing games’ in dominant fashion over Missouri and South Carolina. The Volunteers scored 28 points in each of those first quarters, putting Heupel’s shiny, fast-paced offense on display.
Tennessee did it on the ground, they did it through the air and they also did it with defense. Finally, after well over a decade, the Volunteers are establishing an identity. For Heupel, he’s hoping that spills over onto the recruiting trail.
“For a long time, when you take over a program, you’re talking about what you’re going to look like,” Heupel said after Tennessee improved to 4-2 following a win over South Carolina. “The team you’re building is on the football field. With it being a dead period, once June hit, we were able to get them around us. Young men that are looking for right things in their college football experience, I think gravitated towards our program. Now you get an opportunity to see what it looks like on the field.”
The product was immediately different than what we had grown accustomed to seeing. Tennessee football had become stale under Jeremy Pruitt, as the program tried to copy the Georgia or old-style Alabama blueprint. Without the elite talent that those schools have, it just didn’t work.
Danny White arrived on campus and went straight to the source — the football players themselves — and asked them what they wanted to see in their next coach. The answer was evident. They wanted offense and a guy that could win quickly.
We all let out a chuckle at the last part, considering where this program was following last season. But sitting at 4-2 and looking very likely to hit that six win threshold, you’ve got to hand it to both White and Heupel.
Now, the foundation has been laid and you’re already seeing what this program can look like.
“We want to be one of the fastest, most aggressive teams on the field every single Saturday,” Heupel said. “Some people approach that with, hey, that’s an offensive mindset. No, that’s how we want to be in all three phases of the football game. I know recruits are seeing that week in and week out. They can see us growing as a football program. To see the fun that our players are having in the buildup of the week. And how they perform on Saturday. They see how hard we’re playing as a family. When you do those things, you know the foundation of your program is really solid to be able to do those things as we continue to grow.”
Four really tough tasks are ahead for Tennessee. Ole Miss, Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia are up next, and Heupel really has a chance to build some big momentum if he can grab a win or two against the Rebels or the Wildcats.
Whatever happens though, Heupel’s year one is well on its way to being a success. If you’re a top recruit sitting in the state of Tennessee, you’ve got to take notice of how quickly this is happening, too. Tennessee’s 2022 class has largely been stuck in the mud as they deal with potential NCAA sanctions down the road. The Volunteers rank 32nd in the country currently, per 247Sports.
With just over two months left until the early signing period, I’m really interested to see what they’re able to land down the stretch. After all, that was the big question about this staff, right? Could they recruit at a high level in the SEC? Nobody is expecting top five classes, but bringing consistent top 15-20s is a must.
How much is on-field success worth? We’ll find out over the next couple of months.