When Josh Heupel was brought in to be the next head football coach of the Tennessee Volunteers, it was a signal that change was coming to Knoxville. Jeremy Pruitt’s defensive mindset was gone, and in was Heupel, one of the offensive leaders in college football the last few years. Through just four games of the season, there has already been a shift in the Vols’ offensive production.
While Heupel’s offenses have been virally known for their success through the air, it’s the run game that sets it up. And not just any type of run game, but an effective one as well. And for Tennessee, that’s the recipe for success.
“The run game is really where everything starts for us,” Heupel said on Wednesday. “I think our passing numbers at times have gotten a ton of exposure because of the high success rate there, but the secret behind the sauce is really the run game for us.”
In a word, Heupel is about balance, which has been proven early on at Tennessee. Heading into Missouri, Tennessee is averaging 421 yards of offense per game. The Vols are collecting about 218 yards in the air and 203 yards on the ground this season. And that’s with several injuries mounting early in the season. Tennessee has already had to shuffle their lineup due to starting injuries all over the offense. So ultimately, when specifically talking about the balance to Tennessee’s game, their ability to stay on course has been impressive early on.
The Tennessee offense is all about speed. After the first and third weeks of the college football season, the Vols were the fastest team in the country, with over three plays per minute on average. However, a productive run game is vital to that tempo.
“It’s important to set the tone of the football game,” Heupel said on Wednesday on why a successful rushing attack is a key to his offense. “I think it’s really hard on your offensive line if you try to drop back all the time. It sets up your play-action passes as well, which is a big part of what we do.”
Eli Drinkwitz, the head coach of the Missouri Tigers, is one person that is certainly aware of Tennessee’s dynamic offense. On Wednesday, Drinkwitz directly spoke about the challenges of playing such a speedy group.
“Obviously, they do a really nice job at commanding the tempo,” Drinkwitz said on the SEC teleconference call. “[Heupel] always has an answer to something that you are trying to take away.”
Drinkwitz went into a little more detail on the Vols’ offense on Tuesday during his official press conference in Columbia.
“I think it’s totally different from anything we’ve seen this season,” Drinkwitz said. “They really do a nice job of attacking grass in space. They run the football. I think the misnomer is that they just throw it around the park. They really run it a lot.”
Heupel’s desire and ability to run the ball didn’t start at Tennessee. Nor did that idea come to fruition as a head coach at UCF. Instead, an effective run game has been something that Heupel has always had in his back pocket—even going back to his two years (2016/2017) as the offensive coordinator at Missouri.
“Dating back to Missouri, our success on the ground game there was an integral part to our success in the passing game,” Heupel said. “It’s been true everywhere that we’ve been.”
Tennessee will be looking to rebound from Florida with a bounce-back offensive performance against Missouri. However, with Josh Heupel at the helm, it’s safe to say that a successful offense on Saturday will include an effective game plan on the ground. Especially considering that for Heupel, that’s the magic behind the secret sauce.
Missouri (2-2, 0-1 SEC) will host Tennessee (2-2, 0-1 SEC) this Saturday at noon ET.