Vols head football coach Josh Heupel met with the media once again on Monday morning, this time to introduce his initial defensive coaching staff at Tennessee. Heupel gave a brief synopsis of what the Vols are getting in each assistant, while also fielding questions from the media.
Heupel discussed the decision to not retain Kevin Steele, what defensive Tim Banks will be running, how his defensive philosophies align with Banks’, where he feels the program is at heading into spring practice, pursuing players in the transfer portal and much more. Here’s everything Heupel said:
“Want to start by just saying congratulations to Coach Barnes and the basketball team (for) yesterday. Great come-from-behind victory and wish them well as they get ready for tournament play this week here. Excited to be able to introduce our defensive staff, a group of men that I’m really excited about. They’ve hit the ground running here this past week-and-a-half with our players and already getting some things implemented and getting ourselves prepared for spring ball. Excited about this group of men and who they are, how they’re going to impact our players in a positive way off the field. Group of high-energy men that have a ton of experience. I think four out of the five have coordinator experience, four out of the five have SEC ties and have been inside of this league before. Group of elite recruiters that can help us recruit the biggest and the best here to Knoxville, Tennessee.
“Coach (Tim) Banks, it was important to me on the defensive side of the ball that I got somebody that had a clear vision and had some experience in what they were doing on the defensive side of the football. Believe that our philosophies pair together extremely well. Guy that’s had a coordinator title here the last 14 years of his coaching career, I believe. You look at the past five years, what he’s been a part of at Penn State, you just look at their ability to create zero and negative plays, I think they’re top five and top 10 in pretty much every one of those categories here over the last five years. He’s going to give us the ability to be multiple in what we do, be aggressive in nature, tremendous teacher and I think will be a perfect fit for what we’re doing here in Knoxville, Tennessee. Done a great job of developing guys at all three levels as a coordinator, talking about D-line, linebackers and the secondary position. Will work with us primarily on the back end with our secondary there, but really excited about him.
“Our outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler, a guy that I’ve known dating back to our time together at Oklahoma. You just look at his track record of where he’s been and the success that they’ve had. Another guy that’s had coordinator experience on the defensive coordinator position, but also has done it on the special teams side coming from North Texas. But, he has been inside of this league and handled special teams at Georgia when he was there with Coach (Mark) Richt as well and brings a tremendous amount of knowledge to the special teams side of it here in our program.
“Linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary, just excited about who he is, having competed against him and schematically what he did and the problems that he caused as a coordinator. Will coach our linebackers coming from Michigan, known as an elite recruiter everywhere that he’s been, great developer of guys at that second level at the linebacker position. You look at the amount of guys that he’s been able to recruit and then develop and have an opportunity to go play in the NFL. Perfect fit for us at that position.
“Rodney Garner, our defensive line coach, a guy that’s coached 30-plus years inside the SEC. This is his second go-around here at Tennessee. I think he’s got over 10 first-round draft picks at the D-line position. Known and is a great recruiter, just because he’s genuine. He is who he is and does a great job of developing relationships. I’ve seen that in the short amount of time that he’s been here. His ability to impact our players in a positive way (with a) clear set of standards and expectations and getting those guys to really buy in. Elite as far as being a teacher at D-line play, his ability to teach those guys the overall scheme, but really the fundamentals and technique at that position is going to allow us to recruit the best.
“The last guy that I want to talk about is coach Willie Martinez. We’ve been together at a previous stop at Oklahoma, where I got to know him and his family, and the last three years at UCF. Been inside of this league for over 15 years, both as a position coach and a long tenure as a coordinator as well. Brings a tremendous amount of wealth of knowledge, great recruiter, great human being, great family. He’s going to provide a lot of insight on that side of it. Great teacher of the game, and you just look at who he is and what he’s produced everywhere that he’s been, NFL players at every stop, is known as one of the elite coaches in the secondary position.
“A group of guys that collectively have experience, have a wealth of knowledge, invest in their players and going to be great recruiters for us and excited about having these guys here on the defensive side of the football.”
On the importance of the defensive staff having SEC experience:
“It was a big part of it. For us as a staff and as you assemble your 10 assistants and just collectively the balance that you want to have, having some ties inside of this conference, knowing how it operates, knowing the landscape of it, was important for me. I think you hit on something that was important as well. When you’re bringing together a group of guys, some familiarity with who they are individually and some connections there make the transition into that meeting room, the trust factor is really important, and I think we accomplished that as well. I think our players see how in-sync those guys are and just how they operate and communicate as they put in their scheme as well. You put all those factors together, I think that’s a big part of it. Their SEC experience is important, too, just in that they have some ties in the recruiting world here to our footprint as well.”
On where he feels the program is heading into spring practice:
“I feel like we’re in a good spot heading into spring ball. We basically have two weeks left. With some of the recruiting landscape as far as pushing back our ability to be on the road recruiting, we pushed back the start of spring ball one week, giving our guys, in particular the defensive side of the football, another week to get their feet on the ground. These guys, we’re announcing them today, they’ve been here for a week and really probably closer to two weeks that the staff’s been here with us. I think we’re in a really good spot. You look at what they’ve done inside of our strength and conditioning program, I think we’ll be prepared, having made some gains, but be prepared to go compete during the course of spring ball as well, so I like where we’re at.”
On the scheme defensive coordinator Tim Banks will run:
“It’ll be a combination of some things that Coach Banks has done throughout his tenure, not just what he’s done at Penn State. I think for us, and where our roster is at, I think it’s important that he have the ability to be flexible and to put your kids in a position of success. I think you have to be multiple in today’s game. I think that’s a part of creating zero and negative plays, getting offenses off schedule and that’s both in your front and then what you’re seeing on the back end as well.”
On if the defensive scheme will fit the personnel:
“For sure. I think you’ve got to do that in all three phases. I think it’s important that you find personnel that can fit into your overall strategy of what you want to do, but you’ve got to take a look at what your personnel can do at a really high level and then put them in a position of being successful.”
On the decision to not retain Kevin Steele:
“Kevin’s a great coach that’s been inside of this league for a long time and obviously has some ties to Tennessee as well. Wish him nothing but the best as he moves on in his coaching career and the future. Ultimately felt like this is the right collection of talent here to lead our players and help lead this football program.”
On the level of buy-in from the players:
“At the end of the day it’s always about the players that you have. I don’t care if that’s players that transition out of your program or who you don’t get in recruiting, it’s always about who is here. The level of buy-in has been phenomenal from our players. The accountability factor, those guys wanted it, they’ve bought into it, they’re trusting the process of getting ourselves prepared to go compete during spring ball. We call this our ‘First Quarter’ of the offseason here, the strength and conditioning side of it and starting to get some installs as far as what we’re doing in all three phases of the game as well, but the guys have been great. Great energy, great buy-in, excited about what we’re doing, great chemistry, I think, in the locker room as well. Those are all things that we’re going to have to continue to develop here as we move through this offseason process.”
On if he’ll wait until after spring practice to hit the transfer portal:
“As our coaching staff has come in here, you watch cut-ups of each individual player, trying to give yourself a baseline of who they are, what their skill set is, potentially some subtle tweaks to what position they might be playing or positions you’re going to put them in. But I think you find out a whole lot more and I think it’s important inside of your program every day to not judge them for who they were — that’s on the field or off the field — and judge them for who they are today. You’ve got to give these players an opportunity to grow inside of your strength and conditioning program, get some installs, get their feet on the grass and have an opportunity to work and coach with them, and you’ll find a whole lot more out as you go through spring ball.”
On how his defensive philosophy aligns with Banks:
“I think it’s really important, in my introductory press conference, it was important to me, we want to be aggressive in nature in who we are and how we play the football game. You’ve got to let players cut it loose and go play on game day, but that’s also philosophically how you’re going to align and put your kids in a position of success. I think it’s important that we are multiple on that side of the football. I think that’s part of causing issues for who you’re facing on the offensive side of the football. You have to be a great teacher of that. If you’re going to be multiple, you’ve got to be a great teacher and be able to teach it in a way where there’s a lot of things going on, but your kids have some rules that give them something to grab onto so that they can adjust quickly. I think you just look at his track record of being aggressive, creating zero and negative plays, being multiple. Those were all things that were important to me in hiring a defensive coordinator.”