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Opposing SEC coaches comment on Josh Heupel’s early success at Tennessee

Interesting comments.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Did anyone have 11-2 and an Orange Bowl win over Clemson on the bingo card for 2022? We sure didn’t. Josh Heupel has completely transformed Tennessee into a contender in just 24 months — a shocking development considering where this roster was when Jeremy Pruitt was fired.

Heupel, along with the steadying presence of Hendon Hooker and explosiveness of Jalin Hyatt, took Tennessee to No. 1 in the first College Football Playoff reveal this year. Things didn’t end how they wanted, but the arrow is pointing in the right direction in Knoxville.

I think we all wondered what would happen once Hooker and Hyatt exited, however, a 2023 preview game in Miami against Clemson restored the faith. The defense shut down Clemson, and Joe Milton showed us plenty of signs of development.

Concerns quickly turned into excitement, and the moment is rolling once again heading into the offseason.

“They’re legit,” an SEC coordinator told ESPN. “Their defense is more talented than people give them credit for. And that offense, it’s a beast. I don’t know if they’ll be as talented because the Hyatt kid was super special and Hendon Hooker was 25 years old. He should have been a Heisman finalist. What you saw they did in the bowl game with a lot of their backups, they kicked Clemson’s ass.”

Tennessee was missing Hooker, Hyatt, Cedric Tillman and Jeremy Banks. Even without all of that, the Volunteers won the battle up front on both sides of the ball. Cade Klubnik was on the run all night long, and that secondary that had been abused for much of the year put together a really nice game.

Aaron Beasley was dominant from his middle linebacker spot, filling in for Banks. Tim Banks was creative with his pressures, and Tennessee’s defensive line talent was overwhelming at times for Clemson.

It was just one game, but that’s a nice start to what will be a completely different roster in 2023.

“It will be interesting to see what Tennessee does a year later: Are they better or worse?” an SEC assistant told ESPN. “[Heupel] has always been pretty consistent running that scheme. Is it Milton or is it the guy that everybody knows you’re paying $2 million a year? Does that create problems in the locker room?”

And there’s the big question. Milton has at the very least established a lead in the quarterback battle, but Nico Iamaleava has been here since December learning the offense. Will Milton be able to put those inconsistencies behind him? If he can’t, Iamaleava will be right there, likely getting better with each practice. If Milton plays like he did against Clemson, there’s nothing to worry about. But that dynamic will be fascinating as the season plays out.

Iamaleava comes to Tennessee as a top five player in the class of 2023. The 6-5, 195 pound has the arm, mobility and leadership traits that you want in your quarterback, but how quickly can he adjust to tempo and learn the playbook? We’ll get our first look this spring.

Heupel’s staff depth will be put to the test for the first time at Tennessee, too. Right-hand man Alex Golesh has left for South Florida, and Joey Halzle has been elevated from his quarterbacks coach post to offensive coordinator. It remains to be seen if Halzle will call plays, or if Heupel will handle that role himself.

Regardless, back to back winning seasons and a near appearance in the College Football Playoff is quite the start for Heupel. It’s going to be interesting to see what he can do next.