clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Critical next several weeks ahead for Heupel, Tennessee


NCAA Football: Alabama at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Sustaining momentum — that’s what this next month or so is all about for Tennessee football. The Volunteers finished up year two of the Josh Heupel era with a 56-0 win over Vanderbilt, capping off a wildly successful season that came in way ahead of schedule.

Disappointment from the South Carolina outcome aside, the arrow is still pointing up for Tennessee. That much was proven this weekend. Things could have easily fallen apart for this group, but it didn’t. Quite the opposite, actually. The program actually seemed to rally together, bouncing back to dismantle the Commodores.

Tennessee now is awaiting its bowl destination, which more than likely will end up being the Orange Bowl against the ACC Champion. Did anyone see that coming back in August?

Heupel proved very quickly that his system can get Tennessee as far as they need to go. He quickly turned this program from one of the worst offenses in the FBS to literally the best. Work isn’t done, however, and that much was evident when Tennessee ran into the Georgia buzzsaw down in Athens. There’s still a talent gap there, and there’s only one way to fix that problem.


That’s where college football’s new calendar steps in. December has become the main month for recruiting, as well as transfer portal activity. Over the next couple of weeks, coaching staffs will meet with players and they’ll decide their next steps. The transfer portal has absolutely exploded in recent years, completely changing how you build your roster.

Tennessee has taken advantage, and that should continue going forward.

“The urgency of bowl preparation will be important,” Heupel said after the Vanderbilt win. “Obviously, we’re getting ready to go finish the ‘23 recruiting class here. Two years ago, we talked about what we were going to do. They can see what the culture is. They can feel it. They see the connection inside the building. They understand what our coaching staff’s all about. They understand that this program’s on solid ground, but only going to continue to get better.”

That’s an important point to note — Heupel and his staff are now firmly established in Knoxville. 22 months ago, this program was in shambles. The roster was cleaned out following Jeremy Pruitt’s exit, and Heupel started from ground zero. Selling yourself at that point is difficult, but now, following a dramatic turnaround, there’s legitimate evidence to recruit with.

That evidence is already being put to use in the 2023 class. In fact, five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava is expected to join Tennessee for some bowl practices. It’s a chance for him to dive into the system and get his feet wet ahead of the spring, where this staff will need him to get up to speed quickly to build some depth behind Joe Milton.

It’s also another set of practices to continue development throughout the roster.

“Bowl prep is extremely important,” Heupel said. “You get a chance to kind of reset, get into fundamentals, early part of it. Your vets continue to grow as you get ready and get closer to the bowl game. Your young guys get so many valuable opportunities to grow and compete. Some really good things that some young guys did late in the ballgame tonight.”

Before that bowl game comes the early signing period, where Heupel and staff will be looking to finish off a strong class. Per 247Sports, Tennessee holds the 11th ranked class in the country. Iamaleava is clearly the crown jewel, but this class is anchored by several key defensive pieces. Blue-chip pass rushers Chadavian Bradley and Caleb Herring are building blocks, along with five-star defensive tackle Daevin Hobbs. Cornerbacks Jordan Matthews and Rickey Gibson fill an obvious need, while safeties Sylvester Smith and John Slaughter give Tennessee some needed new blood in the defensive backfield. Tight end Ethan Davis, wide receiver Nathan Leacock and offensive athlete Cam Seldon help restock the weapons for Golesh and Heupel on the other side of the ball.

What else can they add to this class? Four-star JUCO defensive lineman Elijah Davis and four-star linebacker Arion Carter are two names to follow. From there, attention will turn to the transfer portal, which has quickly become the wild wild west of the college football offseason. There’s no telling what the portal will offer, or what the portal will take from you. All teams can do is roll with the punches and react.

The good news here for Tennessee? Once again, they have an established product that has hit the field. That product found its way to a No. 1 ranking this year, too. It’s fun, entertaining and now proven in the SEC. According to Heupel, any prospect that visits Knoxville can feel the culture shift that has come with it.

These next few weeks and beyond are about sustaining that momentum. Cash in on this big season and bring in a few veteran defensive backs. Get that big veteran tight end to replace Princeton Fant and Jacob Warren. Go add a luxury weapon that you might not even need.

And then cap it off with a NY6 bowl win. The core of this group has clearly bought in, and that didn’t change when things got really bumpy in Columbia. That’s a great sign for Tennessee’s future, and fans should be excited about what’s to come under Heupel.