Alabama and Texas A&M Battle for No. 1 Signing Day Ranking
There was less optimism around Josh Heupel’s first season in Knoxville than any of his four predecessors since Phillip Fulmer roamed the Vols’ sidelines.
Heupel took over in January after Fulmer “retired” as athletic director and Jeremy Pruitt was ousted as head coach for recruiting violations and a 3-7 COVID-19 season.
The Vols’ 2021 recruiting class that climbed as high as No. 2 in the summer lost an abundance of their commits falling out the top 15, Tennessee lost more players than any school to the transfer portal, including a handful of crucial players.
A decade plus of losing was wearing on the Vols’ fanbase and the ramifications of internal and NCAA investigations — at least partially — led to a slow start in recruiting in the 2022 class.
When Tennessee opened the Heupel era against Bowling Green, Tennessee held just 12 commits with just two being four-stars.
A week later, Tennessee replaced Joe Milton III with Hendon Hooker at quarterback in a loss to Pittsburgh and everything has looked up for Heupel since.
The Vols lost the game but figured out a quarterback situation they hadn’t figured out since Josh Dobbs played his final game in December of 2016 in the Music City Bowl.
From there, Tennessee went 6-4 to secure a a 7-5 (4-4 SEC) record and UT decided it wouldn’t implement a bowl ban after concluding its internal investigation. Tennessee was more competitive against the SEC’s bests than they had been in the Pruitt era and dominated SEC east opponents Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Tennessee played in two close SEC games, losing at home to No. 13 Ole Miss and winning on the road at No. 18 Kentucky. The Florida game was the one game on the season that didn’t fit into an easy mold. Tennessee failed to capitalize on the worst Gators team in nine years — though the Florida team UT saw in September wasn’t the same one that collapsed in November.
Still, there was no doubt the 2021 season was a success for Tennessee. Heupel exceeded win expectations, provided an exciting offense and UT was better on defense then they were in 2020 despite losing its top two pass rushers, top two linebackers and two key defensive backs.
Heupel was the first coach in the post Fulmer era to exceed expectations in his first season, posting the best record of any first year power five coach. Still, the Vols didn’t add a single commit during September or October as questions about Heupel and Tennessee’s recruits persisted.
Since Nov. 21 — the day after the South Alabama game — Tennessee’s recruiting has completely flipped. The Vols added eight commits and five four-stars in the three and a half weeks leading up to signing day.
Tennessee went into Georgia and beat out Michigan for a four-star edge rusher and receiver, Auburn for a four-star running back and Florida State for a four-star defensive lineman.
The Vols added blue-chip recruits on the defensive line as Rodney Garner’s prowess — especially in the state of Georgia — payed massive dividends. Tennessee’s class now ranks at No. 14 in the 247sports composite rankings. A number that seemed remarkably unlikely four months ago.
If Heupel wants to take Tennessee all the way to the top of the mountaintop, he’ll have to elevate recruiting and sign classes that rank in the nation’s top 10.
Still, Tennessee’s close turned a bad class into a strong one with everything surrounding the Vols’ program. The Vols held strong with historically good Kentucky and Missouri recruiting classes. If Tennessee is going to compete for SEC east titles, they have to beat those teams as well as South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Heupel beat all four this season and the close to his first full recruiting class will help the Vols stay ahead of those schools.