10 things I think about Tennessee football's hire of Josh Heupel

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee hired Central Florida coach Josh Heupel as the Vols' football coach on Wednesday.

Heupel will follow his former boss, Danny White, to Tennessee. The Vols hired White as athletics director last week. He had been UCF's AD since 2015, and White hired Heupel in December 2017 to replace Scott Frost.

Heupel, 42, went 28-8 in three seasons at UCF.

Here are 10 things I think about the hire.

1. Tennessee should score points

Like White's previous coaching hires as the AD at Buffalo and UCF, Heupel comes from an offensive background.

Tennessee should score points with Heupel after ranking no better than 11th in the SEC in scoring offense over the past four seasons. 

Heupel was Missouri's offensive coordinator in 2016-17. The Tigers had ranked last in the SEC in scoring offense in the season before his arrival. They improved to fifth in his first season before leading the SEC in scoring offense at 37.5 points per game in 2017.

Butch Jones can attest to Heupel's work that season. Missouri beat Tennessee, 50-17, on Nov. 11, 2017, piling up 659 yards of offense. Jones was fired as Tennessee's coach the following day.

2. Tennessee will play fast on offense

Heupel's offenses operate at a breakneck pace. 

Consider, in 2020, UCF averaged 85.9 plays. By comparison, Tennessee averaged 66 plays.

That's a typical Heupel offense: Go, go, go.

The Knights averaged 3.12 plays per minute of possession in 2020, compared to 2.36 for the Vols.

3. Vols fans will be lukewarm on the hire

This hire isn't going to set the fanbase ablaze with excitement. Heupel has head coaching experience, SEC experience as a coordinator and worked on Bob Stoops' Oklahoma staff from 2006-14, including as co-offensive coordinator from 2011-14.

Still, Heupel won't move the needle like plucking off a sitting Power 5 coach would have. Given the fact that Tennessee swung big for its AD hire, making White one of the top-paid AD's in the country, it seemed conceivable the Vols might reel in a big fish.

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But Tennessee's job isn't as attractive at the moment. The roster is thin. The program has failed to meet expectations for more than a decade. And the possibility of self-imposed and NCAA penalties from an ongoing investigation into alleged recruiting malfeasance is the biggest red flag.

4. This is good news for quarterbacks

Tennessee failed to successfully develop quarterbacks during Jeremy Pruitt's three seasons as coach. Don't expect that to continue under Heupel.

As a graduate assistant at Oklahoma, Heupel helped tutor Heisman Trophy winner Jason White in 2003, and he was Sam Bradford’s quarterback coach when Bradford won the award in 2008. 

Drew Lock flourished at Missouri during Heupel's two seasons as offensive coordinator, and Lock is now in the NFL.

UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel led the nation in 2020 by averaging 357 yards passing in 10 games.

Central Florida quarterback Dillon Gabriel was the nation's most prolific passer in 2020 under Josh Heupel's tutelage.

5. This is bad news if you like old-school football

If you like fullbacks, I-formation, huddles or defenses fueling championships, this hire isn't for you.

Heupel is part of college football's movement in an offensive direction. Expect shotgun formation, hurry-up offense and a whole lot of points for each side.

In 2020, UCF allowed 33.2 points per game and averaged 42.2 on offense. The Knights never ranked outside the top eight nationally in scoring offense during Heupel's tenure.

6. Expect offense to rely on run-pass option plays

Run-pass option plays have become an important piece of college football, and they are a big part of what Heupel likes to do offensively.

On an RPO, the quarterback can either hand the ball off or throw a pass depending on  defensive alignment. The offensive line run blocks, preparing for a run play, while wide receivers run pass routes, preparing for a pass.

"When it's a loaded box, you throw it, and when the numbers are right, you hand it off," Heupel said in 2016, during his tenure as Missouri's offensive coordinator. 

7. This hire would have looked better a year or two ago

How much stock do you put on a season played in a pandemic? UCF's 6-4 record in 2020 marked its worst season of the Heupel tenure.

This hire would have looked better a year or two ago.

Heupel stepped into a well-built program that Frost had led to 13-0 record in 2017 and kept the success going.

The Knights went 12-1 in Heupel's first season, with the only loss a 40-32 defeat to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. They went 10-3 the following year before continuing a downward trend in 2020.

Pruitt was the king of the blowout loss. Heupel, at least, was competitive in losses at UCF, with seven of his eight coming by eight points or fewer.

8. Josh Heupel can fire Chris Weinke, who beat him for Heisman Trophy

Heupel finished as the Heisman Trophy runner-up as Oklahoma's quarterback in 2000 to Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke.

Weinke spent the past three seasons on Pruitt's staff, including the last two as quarterbacks coach. Expect Heupel to make several staff changes, and Weinke could be among them.

Although Heupel didn't win the Heisman in 2000, the Sooners beat Florida State, 13-2, in the BCS National Championship to culminate that season. Heupel completed 25 of 39 passes for 214 yards during that game.

9. Josh Heupel won't hold court on 'Vol Calls' 

Don't expect Heupel to launch a "Brick by Brick" campaign or talk about "fistfights in a phone booth" or "63 strain." (Those were Butch-isms, if you mentally blocked those out.)

Heupel is a pretty low-key personality. His news conferences won't be must-watch events. Don't expect him to yuck it up with fans on "Vol Calls."

10. Jury out on Josh Heupel's recruiting

UCF's recruiting classes never ranked better than 60th in the 247Sports Composite under Heupel.

By comparison, Frost's final class at UCF had ranked 55th. 

UCF didn't sign any prospects with a four-star ranking or better in 247Sports Composite during the Heupel era. During Heupel's long tenure on staff at Oklahoma, he spent much of his recruiting efforts in Texas.

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at blake.toppmeyer@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.