When Josh Heupel and his staff arrived in Knoxville in the winter of 2021, Tennessee football’s program decline seemed never ending. After over a decade of struggles, Tennessee had hit another rock bottom. Josh Heupel took over a program coming off a 3-7 season and in the midst of an NCAA investigation.
Heupel was the fifth Tennessee coach looking to get the Vols back to the level they were at under head coach Phillip Fulmer. And through 2.5 seasons, things have gone well for Heupel.
Tennessee overachieved in his first season, broke back onto the national scene with a 11-2 (6-2 SEC) 2022 season and enter a critical three-game stretch to end the season ranked in the nation’s top 15.
Vols’ defensive line coach Rodney Garner has a unique perspective on Tennessee’s resurgence. He was a part of Fulmer’s staff in the ’90s when Tennessee’s program was at its peak. Garner is a 30-year coaching veteran in the SEC and knows what it takes to win in the nation’s toughest conference.
During a media availability Tuesday, Garner provided an interesting perspective on what he’s seen in the Vols’ program resurgence.
“We’re blessed to have some really good young men. I think guys have been beaten down. It had been a long time since Tennessee had been back to the elite status that Tennessee’s used to,” Garner said. “So, for those guys that started out with us that first year, for us to win seven games, I thought that was great. And then back it up to last year and just seeing the improvement, I think they’re taking more pride in getting the program back to where it belongs.”
Player leadership is important to any program and it’s something Josh Heupel has emphasized ever since taking over as head coach. COVID-19 eligibility relief has helped Tennessee in that regard.
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Sixteen of the Vols’ 22 offensive and defensive starters are seniors and that’s helped Tennessee build continuity and standards within the program.
“These kids have bought into it,” Garner said. “They’re doing the little things. Leadership is starting to show up in the locker room, which I think anytime in this league that you have a good program, it needs to be peer-led. We don’t mind leading as coaches, but we have to be honest with ourselves. For it to be really effective, we need the kids to buy into it and we need the kids to hold each other accountable. I think our guys have done a much better job of doing that. Not having to start over that we’re at day one every day, we’re able to move the needle and pick up where we left off.”
Garner’s explanation carries extra weight because he’s not one for coach speak. The veteran defensive line coach is more blunt and honest with the media than any other Tennessee football coach. He’s willing to be critical of players when he feels it’s necessary and typically doesn’t compliment players or his unit as a whole just to do so.
That honesty came up with his finish thoughts answering the question. Garner emphasized that Tennessee still has a long way to get where they want to end up.
“Still got a long way to go, we all know that,” Garner said. “We’ve got to continue to improve in all facets of our game. We can’t ever become satisfied. Not that we’ve done anything to be satisfied with, but we’ve got to keep working hard to try and improve every day.”
Garner’s assessment is correct. Tennessee hasn’t won any championships yet and that is the ultimate goal. The Vols have a top 15 road matchup this weekend and host two-time defending national champion Georgia to Neyland Stadium in two weeks. If Tennessee loses both of those games, the narrative will change about this season and at least a little bit about Heupel’s tenure.
But tell any Tennessee fan that Heupel would post a 25-10 record in his first 35 games, they would have signed up for it every time.
Garner’s perspective on how it’s happened is interesting and provides a detailed look at how Heupel wants to build his program.