By Mark Nagi
When Josh Heupel was hired as Tennessee’s head football coach at the end of January, he went into it with his eyes wide open.
Heupel knew that the situation he was inheriting was not ideal. This was a program coming off a 3-7 season that would also be operating under the cloud of potential NCAA sanctions due to alleged recruiting violating that occurred under the previous coaching staff.
He’s trying to get current and future Tennessee players to buy in to his philosophy, while assuring Vol Nation that he can get the program back on track.
The past two and a half months haven’t appeared to have done much in either aspect.
Let’s start with the player buy in. Since the end of the 2020 season, 30 Vols have entered the transfer portal. That list includes their best offensive player (running back Eric Gray), their best returning offensive lineman (Wayna Morris), and their top recruit from the Class of 2020 (safety Key Lawrence). All three of those guys picked Oklahoma to continue their academic and athletic careers.
The linebacker position was especially ransacked. Tennessee’s best overall player, Henry To’o To’o has been in the transfer portal for months, and there is little reason to believe he will return to Tennessee. The same goes for Quavaris Crouch and J.J. Peterson. Tennessee’s team leader in sacks from 2020, Deandre Johnson, transferred to Miami.
For some of the players, it might not have had much to do with Heupel at all. Some made the decision to leave even before he was hired. For others, Heupel’s inability to complete his coaching staff in due time made them look elsewhere.
Despite having Kevin Steele under contract, Heupel let him go. Steele was a highly regarded defensive coordinator with decades of experience in that position. The decision to dismiss him meant that Tennessee would pay Steele $1.8 million for two months of employment. (As always, the buyout life remains undefeated.) Heupel was turned down multiple times before Penn State’s co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks accepted the promotion and hefty salary bump.
That move appears to have done little to convince To’o To’o and others to return to Tennessee.
In terms of future Vols, Heupel swung and missed on 5-star quarterback Ty Simpson, an in-state kid that picked Alabama. Had Simpson picked Tennessee, it would have given Heupel a chance to make some moves in the Class of 2022, a crucial class to his chances for success.
Vols fans got to see the team on April 10th during an open practice session at Neyland Stadium. This was a good move by Heupel. But there hasn’t been very much in the way of good PR lately.
Linebacker Aaron Beasley was suspended after accusations of animal abuse were made public. Four players, including freshman quarterback Kaidon Salter were suspended after misdemeanor drug possession charges last month. These are not ways to impress a new coaching staff.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the foundations had to start sometime. That’s what Heupel and his staff are trying to accomplish right now. Publicly, it doesn’t appear that they are getting much footing, but we’ll find out in the years to come if these hiccups are temporary.