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Everything Josh Heupel Said During Early Signing Day Press Conference

Photo by Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel met with the media on Wednesday afternoon to do discuss the two dozen-plus prospects that the Vols signed on the first day of the early signing period.

Heupel and his staff signed 21 scholarship prep prospect, three scholarship transfers and a number of walk ons on Wednesday morning.

Tennessee’s third-year head coach discussed a number of players in the recruiting class, the challenges of the every changing recruiting landscape and much more. Here’s everything Heupel said.

More From RTI: Tennessee Lands Oregon State Cornerback Transfer Jermod McCoy

Opening statement

“Big day for Tennessee football and the future of where we’re going, welcoming in the class of 24. Great day. A lot of those guys are already here, but wanna thank our coaches, our recruiting staff. There’s so many people that go into the work that takes place to sign a class on national signing day. Also want to thank all the high school coaches that have been so welcoming to all of us as we’ve traveled around our footprint and across the country. Coaches have been awesome. Lastly, want to thank the families that entrusted their kids to us and helping ’em grow into the men and the players that they dream about. 

“Really excited about this group. 27 guys, at this point we’ve signed so far. I think 15 of those kids are midyear that are with us right now, the high school guys. We have a few transfer portal guys that are already here on campus as well. Excited about the group. Love the length, athleticism that we’ve added. You look at what we’ve signed, obviously a point of emphasis was the line of scrimmage. We continue to add really good players to our roster in that way. And then athleticism and length at the skill spots. So, I feel like it is a really good group. They’re dynamic in the way that they play. Love the competitive makeup of this group. Some guys that have already shown some leadership traits and excited to get to work with them whenever they get to campus.”

On the challenges of recruiting and the adjustments that he and his staff have had to make, as the dynamics of recruiting are changing

“Well, the dynamics are different in that your roster has an opportunity to leave at the end of the year, as they look for the right place, right time, right fit for themselves. I think you look at our ability to retain a majority of our roster. You look at the guys that chose to come back for another year, a lot of veteran guys. Some of ’em had opportunities to move on to the next level. And feel like, you know, the culture, the energy, the ability to develop here, that it was right for them to come back for another year too. So there’s a lot of things that go into it.

“I think the hardest thing in today’s landscape is the uncertainty of the numbers. That can be with your entire roster. It can be with position groups. Because of the portal, the recruitment of these guys, and I’m talking about, you know, the fact the kids will still be going into the portal here (at the) end of January, you’re constantly evaluating your roster, where you’re at, what are the needs that you have? You’re looking for athletic traits. At times you feel like you need experience. At times you feel like, you know, those guys that are on campus that you need to develop and get them ready to play by the time you kick off next year.”

On if it’s now harder to project your roster two years out

“Well, you have to recruit with the mindset of still developing the guys as the young guys that are coming on your campus. And at the same time, you gotta understand that, as you recruit during the course of the year, you know, there may be guys that decide to leave your roster. And so your numbers at a certain position can change early and in the middle and at the late part of the season.”

On how he feels about where the defensive back room is at following a lot of attrition

“Yeah, I like the physical traits of the guys that are in the building right now. We have some young guys that gotta grow and mature as football players, but I love the athletic traits. That’s true of the young guys that were with us this past season. True of the signees that are coming in. We felt like we wanted to add some experience in those positions. We’ve attacked that through the portal with a couple guys as well.”

On how confident he is that the class of linemen can provide depth next season:

“Yeah, it’s a group that I really like, their high end, competitive makeup. It’s a really mature group. High school offensive linemen almost always are gonna have to develop the physical attributes. I’m just talking about, you know, the strength and size, that you’re gonna need to be able to play at this level. A lot of those guys, I think four of ’em are already here right now. They’ve shown the athletic traits that we thought we saw on video. It’s a long journey to get those guys ready. But it’s a really good group.”

On four-star athlete signee Boo Carter

“I thought our staff did a great job inside of our home state. I think we got eight guys that will be joining us in this class in the state of Tennessee. Boo, Mr. Football, dynamic playmaker, played both sides of the line of scrimmage. Was really good as a returner as well. We’ve already seen a lot of those skill sets from him. This might be day three or day four already for him out on the grass with us. He’s electric. He’s got great change of direction, short-area quickness, got a really good football IQ. He’s natural as a returner too. We’ve already kind of seen some of that from him. So really excited about who he is. He’s got a real maturity about him on the football field. That’s rare for a high school kid. I got a chance to see some of that when I went and watched him play live. But also already in his transition here.”

On four-star running back Peyton Lewis

“Peyton Lewis, a track kid that’s electric with the ball in his hands. This year, you look at his development between the tackles great vision, great ability, short-area quickness, constantly chewing up ground as he’s working through the line of scrimmage. Develop the ability to play with great pad level, smart, tough, competitive really excited about him. 

On five-star receiver Mike Matthews

“Mike Matthews has been really good. First three, four days already out on the grass, got great length, just talking about his wingspan. Extremely explosive, the ability to go up and high-point a ball over the middle of the football field or out on the edge as he’s going vertically. As a wide receiver, you’re gonna have to develop the ability to play versus man press at the line of scrimmage. Those are things that you typically don’t see (in high school). But a really bright guy that has got a great future.”

On how the transfer portal has changed the questions prep prospects ask about playing time during the recruiting process

“Well, first of all, they’ve always asked that. I asked that question too, but absolutely. They’re looking at your roster and what’s going on in portal recruiting as well as a part of the process of what your rosters gonna look like when they step foot on campus. And they’ll ask just the general overall philosophy, questions about that too.”

On the competitiveness of recruiting in the SEC

“Yeah, as competitive as it is on the football field, it’s even more competitive in recruiting. Time, energy, effort, strain. Everybody’s working in the same footprint. I think we’re one of the few leagues left where it’s actually a regional footprint. You’re competing against the guys inside of your conference every time you’re talking to a kid.”

On the three transfers Tennessee signed on Wednesday

“Yeah, Holden (Staes has) got the physical attributes. You can see in his footage already that he has got the ability to play out in space, connected in the line of scrimmage, has the body type of frame to do everything that we’re gonna ask him to do inside this league, inside of our offense. He’s bright, competitive, he’s got the make up to help us immediately. And obviously that’s the position over the last couple of years that we knew we were gonna have to go attack in the portal. 

“The secondary guys (Jakobe Thomas and Jermod McCoy), they’re athletic. They got great short-area quickness. They’re willing to be physical, stick their face on people. They have multiple years left, can grow out of what we’re doing. I feel like both of them can make an immediate impact, obviously, as well. Jakobe was out there today. Holden’s on campus today.”

On what Tennessee coaches liked about QB Jake Merklinger

“He’s gonna have to grow really quickly. He’ll get spoon fed as we start here in January and, and grow into spring football. Smart, competitive, he’s got good fundamentals. We’ve gotta refine some of those things. He’s already been working on those as he stepped foot on campus. But his football IQ, his ability to retain information, process out on the football field. he’s winner. He’s competitive. He’s got the right makeup.”

On the importance of having eight in-state players in this Tennessee signing class 

“Yeah, always are gonna place an emphasis on it. We spend a lot of time and energy, communication with the high school coaches, guys that have their boots on the ground here. We’re gonna recruit them the right way. It doesn’t mean we’ll get every single one of them. It doesn’t mean we’re gonna offer every single one. But we wanna make sure that we’re very thorough in the evaluation process and, based on where we’re at and who they are and what their makeup is, is the right fit.”

On the challenges of recruiting players in the portal and not running off players at that position

“There’s a flip side to the coin for sure. At the end of the day, you’re trying to build your roster to be its best. That’s in the immediate, but you also have to have a long-term future of it as well. You got to have kids inside of your program that you’re developing physically within your scheme and the culture and leadership that you want inside of your program too. So there’s more changes to your program than there used to be in trying to project. But at the same time you got to develop from within it as well.”

On the importance of the state of Tennessee in the 2025 cycle

“State of Tennessee is gonna be huge for us in this upcoming cycle. It always is, but next year’s a great year inside of this (state). You can already see that with some of the guys that we’ve evaluated. We got a great reception from  the high school coaches across the state in the short amount of time that we’ve been here three years. Developed really good relationships, rapport. We’ve had a lot of those coaches here on campus already that (to) share and have an opportunity to come and spend time with our staff to get to know who we are and what we’re about. But, it’s a great year inside this state.”

On how set the roster is for the bowl game regarding opt outs and transfers

“I think we’re closing in on being more defined on our roster with the portal dates, nothing is finalized at this point for any team across the country. And that’s your own roster, but it’s also guys that become available in the portal. So it is different than national signing day. (That) Used to mean that was the end of kind of the transition of your roster and your roster was known for the next year. At this point, there’s a good percentage that you know about, but there’s still going to be opportunities through the portal as we continue to go through the month of January.  You look at last year, I think we had Omar (Norman-Lott), Gabe Jeudy(-Lally), and Keenan Pili that were all added after the bowl game.”

On if roster is set for the bowl game, comfort level with young defensive backs

“I feel like we’re pretty set on the majority of those guys that will be traveling with us to Orlando. You talk about the young dbs. This is the time of year, 20 years ago everybody played in the bowl game. There were really no opt-outs at that time. With the NFL, more guys have elected to do that. So you look over the recent history of bowl games. It provides a great opportunity to the young guys inside of your roster that may have played sporadically throughout the course of the season on offense and or defense that get an opportunity to go out and play. They get game week preparation, a couple extra weeks because of the bowl preparation. But it provides opportunity. And I do feel good about the guys that will be out there in the secondary.”

On if they’d like to add a more experienced quarterback in the transfer portal

“I think quarterback is one of the positions, you look across the country, it’s hard to have the depth at that position that you historically may have had. We’re going to continue to always evaluate. That’s true at quarterback, but it’s true at every position here as we go through January.”

On if it’s hard to recruit a quarterback in portal with Nico Iamaleava already on campus

“Yes, sir. It is.”

On their flexibility, where things stand currently in portal recruiting

“I mean the recruiting process for those guys, some of those guys make quick decisions. Some of those guys you’ve been in communication with that are already in the portal that may elect to take a visit in January, or they’re nearing the decision process, don’t have it finalized by a day like today when I’m speaking in front of you. There’s going be guys that will continue to get in the portal on the back end of some of these bowl games too. That’s where it is different than it used to be. Personnel that would become available, you have to constantly monitor and evaluate the player and the person here is as you go through Christmas, through January.”

On adding tight end Cole Harrison, if he likes where they are numbers wise there

“Like the room where we’re at right now, you’re always going to continue to evaluate every position, like I said, and tight end would continue to be one. Cole was big for us because, uh, he’s got length, athleticism, as he continues to develop physically I think his traits are only going to showcase more. He’s got really good ball skills, has to develop in the core. That will happen through fundamentals, but it’ll happen through the growth on this frame.”

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