Josh Heupel met with the local media Tuesday ahead of opening his first fall camp at Tennessee. The Vols’ head coach discussed a plethora of topics including how he approaches special teams.
Whether or not you should play your best players on special teams has long been a major debate among football coaches and media.
Last season, the media criticized Nick Saban for playing Jaylen Waddle on special teams. Alabama lost Waddle for the season after suffering an ankle injury returning a kick against Tennessee.
So, how does Heupel view the subject?
“It’s a third of the game that if you ask our players they understand the importance of it,” Heupel said. “For us we feel like we need to win that phase of the game every single week. To do that you have to play your best players. Does that mean a starting receiver or defensive back is going to play on all four special teams? Probably not. They’re going to play a role on our team’s units.”
For Tennessee, putting emphasis on special teams is particularly important. The Vols’ 12-game schedule will see four to five games where Tennessee is within a touchdown favorite or underdog of its opponents. Every special teams play matters.
On the other hand, Tennessee was hit harder by any other school in the transfer portal. The Vols’ depth is a weakness and any starters getting injured playing special teams would sting worse.
For Heupel, it’s all about finding the perfect balance.
“I think as you go through training camp and balance the depth chart of where your roster’s at with guys that can maybe be core team guys based on where you think they fall on the offensive/defensive depth chart that maybe are core guys that play on all four teams,” Heupel said. “At the end of the day, those 11 guys have to function and play at a championship level. Those units, as much as anything offense or defense, have to have your trust as a coach.”
Heupel started that training and implemented that mindset in the spring when everyone on Tennessee’s roster worked on special teams units.
“All of our guys all spring long took special teams reps. I don’t care if it was punt, punt return, kick-off cover, kick return— everyone was repping,” Heupel said. “As we go through training camp those numbers will shrink down a little bit.”
There are still plenty of special teams questions left to ask before Tennessee kicks-off the 2021 season against Bowling Green on Aug. 2. Heupel left questions on who would return kicks and punts unanswered Tuesday.