A Look Back At Josh Heupel’s First Year At Tennessee

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    CFB Coaching Grades: Tennessee’s Josh Heupel

    Tennessee hired Josh Heupel as the university’s 27th head football coach a year ago today, poaching the then 42-year old from Central Florida.

    Taking over in the midst of an internal and NCAA investigation, Heupel’s first year had highs-and-lows. The Vols overachieved on the field, going 7-6 (4-4 SEC) and Heupel was one of the nation’s best first year coaches.

    Take a look back at Heupel’s first 365 days as Tennessee’s head man.

    Jan. 27 — Danny White tabs Josh Heupel as Pruitt’s successor

    Just nine days after Tennessee fired head coach Jeremy Pruitt, new athletic director Danny White tabbed UCF coach Josh Heupel as the Vols’ newest head coach.

    During the introductory press conference, White denied claims that other candidates turned down the Tennessee job, saying Heupel was his first choice.

    Fan outcry was mostly negative to the hire with fans criticizing White for hiring the coach from his old school.

    Heupel expressed excitement to be at Tennessee, downplayed the NCAA investigation and talked of his goals and high powered offense.

    “We’ve done it successfully multiple times, different places that I’ve been,” Heupel said. “Your coaches have to get caught up to speed on what your doing if they haven’t been inside of the system. You got to coach your coaches. And then your coach has got to put in time with your players. And there’s only one way to get where you need to be, and that’s time effort and energy. And our players have to be willing to go above and beyond to get to where we need to be. We will be able to get there, no question in my mind.”

    Feb. 11 — Heupel hires DL coach Rodney Garner

    Heupel Brough the majority of his offensive staff with him from UCF, but the up-and-coming head coach needed to find defensive coaches with SEC experiment.

    He couldn’t have found anymore when he hired longtime SEC defensive line coach Rodney Garner. Garner previously had stops at Tennessee, Georgia and Auburn where he earned a reputation as one of the nation’s best recruiters.

    Feb. 15 — Heupel hires defensive coordinator Tim Banks

    After a long search to find the man that would run his defense, Heupel hired Penn State co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks.

    The first year head coach was turned down by a handful of other candidates including Ohio State linebacker coach Al Washington.

    Hiring Banks paid dividends in year one. Banks turned a defense devoid of talent into a respectable unit and was a semifinalist for the Broyles Award.

    March 26 — First spring practice begins

    After a COVID-19 outbreak within the locker room pushed the start of spring practice back two weeks, the Vols finally got underway March 26.

    All eyes were on the three person quarterback battle between Harrison Bailey, Brian Maurer and Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker.

    April 14 — Heupel lands first commitment

    Heupel’s recruiting started very slow with the head coach not earning his first commit in the 2022 class until April.

    Murfreesboro pass rusher Elijah Herring bought into Heupel’s vision and believed Rocky Top was the place for him.

    Now with most of the 2022 class in the rearview, Heupel and his staff are actively pursuing Elijah’s brother— Caleb.

    April 19 — Joe Milton commits to Tennessee

    Despite spring practice still going on, Heupel saw enough of his quarterbacks to want to dip his toe in the transfer portal.

    Michigan quarterback Joe Milton III transferred to Tennessee and eventually became the Vols’ starter before later losing the job.

    April 28 — Tayven Jackson commits to Tennessee

    Heupel wasn’t done recruiting quarterbacks, going into Indiana to get four-star prep prospect Tayven Jackson.

    Soon after Heupel arrived in Knoxville, blue-chip quarterbacks with ties to Tennessee — Ty Simpson and Sam Horn — spurred Tennessee for SEC foes.

    Landing a strong quarterback was the first strong recruiting step Heupel made in Knoxville.

    Aug 2 — Addison Nichols commits to Tennessee

    Tennessee picked up recruiting momentum over the summer but didn’t land many highly sought after commits. That changed in early August when interior offensive lineman Addison Nichols chose Tennessee over North Carolina and Ohio State.

    The fringe top 100 recruit became the highest rated commit in Tennessee’s recruiting class.

    Sept. 2 — Heupel era opens with a win

    Tennessee got the Josh Heupel era started on Thursday Sept. 2 with a 38-6 win over Bowling Green.

    Running backs Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans each ran for over 100 yard while Milton struggled in his debut.

    Sept. 11 — Vols fall to Pitt, find their quarterback

    The first real test of the Josh Heupel era ended in a loss as Tennessee fell to Pittsburgh 41-34 at Neyland Stadium.

    The game did have a positive not. After Milton struggled in the first quarter and got knocked out of the game in the second quarter, Hendon Hooker took his first meaningful snaps for Tennessee.

    Hooker made mistakes but also impressed, totaling 237 yards and two touchdowns. The Virginia Tech transfer never relinquished the starting job.

    Oct. 2 — Tennessee makes statement at Missouri 

    Heupel earned his first major win at Tennessee a month into his tenure. The Vols went into Columbia and decimated Missouri, 62-24. Tennessee scored touchdowns on its first six drives on its way to the first SEC win of the season.

    The Vols dominated Missouri so thoroughly that the Tigers fired their defensive line coach the following Monday.

    Oct. 9 — Vols debut black uniforms, route South Carolina

    A week after the Missouri game, Tennessee returned to Neyland Stadium and debut its “dark mode” uniforms.

    Wearing black uniforms for the second time ever and alternates for the first time since 2017, Tennessee jumped out to a 28-3 first quarter lead and beat South Carolina, 45-20.

    Oct. 16 — Neyland sells out, Kiffin wins in return to Knoxville

    The buzz from back-to-back SEC blowouts combined with Lane Kiffin’s return to Knoxville ignited an unreal environment inside Neyland Stadium.

    In the first sell out in four years, Tennessee and Ole Miss played a thrilling football game delayed by fan mayhem following questionable officiating.

    Ole Miss survived the primetime matchup, 31-26, as Heupel missed an opportunity for a top 15 win.

    Nov. 4 — Tennessee concludes internal investigation, doesn’t impose bowl ban

    After months of uncertainty, Tennessee finally concluded its internal investigation into the football program in early January. The Vols announced that they would be self imposing violations but that a bowl ban would not be one.

    The NCAA’s investigation into Tennessee football is still on going.

    Nov. 6 — Vols win shootout in Lexington

    Tennessee earned the marque win of Josh Heupel’s first season on the first Saturday on November. Kentucky nearly tripled Tennessee’s time of possession, but the Vols’ big play offense and two critical fourth quarter stops were enough to win the shootout.

    After Kentucky media questioned whether Hooker could play in the cold earlier in the week, the North Carolina native turned in a masterclass. Hooker completed 75% of his passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns adding 41 yards on the ground.

    Nov. 20 — Tennessee clinches bowl eligibility

    The win over Kentucky all but guaranteed it, but the Vols officially clinched bowl eligibility on Nov. 20 against South Alabama.

    A week later, Tennessee concluded he regular season with a win over Vanderbilt to finish the season 7-5. The record was the best of a first-year Tennessee head coach since Kiffin posted the same record in 2009.

    Nov. 26 — Tiyon Evans enters the transfer portal

    Drama involving one of the biggest break out stars of the 2021 season came to a close the Friday following Thanksgiving when running back Tiyon Evans entered the transfer portal.

    The junior college running back was fantastic the first half of the season, tallying over 100 yards in three of his first five games. The injury bug struck Evans and the running back never fully recovered, eventually opting to leave UT for Louisville.

    Dec. 12 — Hooker announces he’s returning for super senior season

    Due to NCAA COVID-19 eligibility relief, Hooker’s senior year didn’t have to be his last. After weeks of talks and speculation, Hooker maid his decision to return to Tennessee official.

    The quarterback’s return set the wheels in motion for the Tennessee football 2022 hype train.

    Dec. 15 — Heupel’s first early signing day is a success, snagging three four-stars

    Recruiting wasn’t the strength of Heupel’s first year in Knoxville, but the head coach finished the early signing period strong.

    Heupel and his staff added a number of commits and blue-chip recruits leading up to the early signing period. However, the first day of the period proved to be the best.

    Tennessee signed all 17 of its commits while signing four-stars Tyre West, Justin Williams and James Pearce.

    Dec. 23 — Cedric Tillman follows Hooker’s lead, returns for senior season

    A week and a half after Hooker announced plans to return to Tennessee for the 2022 season, his go-to receiver Cedric Tillman followed suit.

    The Las Vegas native was perhaps the biggest breakout star of Heupel’s first season. A week later, Tillman would tally 150 yard and three touchdowns against Purdue to become the first Tennessee receiver to tally 1,000 yards since Justin Hunter did so in 2012.

    Dec. 30 — Vols fall to Purdue in Music City Bowl

    Despite Tillman’s huge day, Tennessee fell in overtime to Purdue, 48-45. The Vols missed opportunities and played horribly on defense, but questionable officiating late dominated the game’s narrative.

    Heupel’s first Tennessee team ended with a 7-6 record.

    Jan. 17 — Heupel Named Co-Winner of the Steve Spurrier First-Year Coach Award

    Heupel’s strong first season earned him a share of the Steve Spurrier First-Year Coach Award.

    Heupel previously won the award at UCF and split the 2021 honor with South Carolina coach Shane Beamer.

    Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.