Does Josh Heupel's progress have staying power? Tennessee football players believe it can last

·4 min read

That gust of wind that blew through Neyland Stadium Saturday night was a collective sigh of relief.

No, Tennessee football fans weren’t worried they could lose to Vanderbilt. The Vols won easily, 45-21.

And they weren’t concerned about missing out on a bowl game. That was secured a week earlier.

Instead, it was a year-long exhale with the slow realization that coach Josh Heupel’s first season was a relative success. It didn’t occur in a single moment. It happened gradually, and now it’s certain.

The Vols are 7-5, making Heupel the fifth UT coach since 1941 to win at least seven regular-season games in his first year.

And he won the games UT coaches are supposed to win — but, lately, have not won enough.

UT swept East Division foes Missouri, South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt for only the third time since Missouri entered the SEC in 2012. It still lost to Florida and Georgia — usually the top of the East — so there’s work to be done.

It begs the question of how high the Vols can go with Heupel.

“The one thing we’ve never done is put a ceiling on this group,” Heupel said.

Moments after rushing for 103 yards and two TDs, running back Jabari Small echoed that sentiment — citing his coach as the reason to believe more winning is ahead.

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“This is just the first season with Coach Heupel,” Small said. “We haven’t reached the ceiling or the peak of where we can be. In the coming years, we are very excited just to see the whole team buy into what Coach Heupel is doing. And we have some young players in the first year in the system.

"The future is bright, I think.”

That approach will be needed because expectations will rise due to this year’s success. It’s certainly better than the alternative.

Can Heupel turn on-field progress into recruiting success?

From left, Tennessee offensive lineman Cooper Mays (63), Head Coach Josh Heupel, quarterback Hendon Hooker (5), and Offensive Analyst Mitch Militello stand before the Pride of the Southland Band as they perform “Tennessee Waltz” after a win in the NCAA college football game between the Tennesse Volunteers and Vanderbilt Commodores in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, November 27, 2021.
From left, Tennessee offensive lineman Cooper Mays (63), Head Coach Josh Heupel, quarterback Hendon Hooker (5), and Offensive Analyst Mitch Militello stand before the Pride of the Southland Band as they perform “Tennessee Waltz” after a win in the NCAA college football game between the Tennesse Volunteers and Vanderbilt Commodores in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, November 27, 2021.

When Heupel was hired in January amid the turmoil of Jeremy Pruitt’s firing and an NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations, this season was going to end one of two ways.

Either the Vols would exit November looking to turn things around or build on momentum. The latter is certainly true, and Heupel sensed that after beating Vanderbilt.

“All the recruiting that we did from the time I got here, from February to September, was really in some ways just words,” Heupel said. “You are trying to compare and contrast the things you’ve done in other places and why it’s going to work here.

“I think the great thing about where we’re at in recruiting now is that recruits understand that all those things are true and will happen here.”

The early signing period starts Dec. 15, and UT should be active in the transfer portal.

The Vols have a lot to sell. This up-tempo offense is on the verge of becoming the highest scoring in school history. This coaching staff did more with less than the previous staff did after a mass exodus of players in the offseason.

To cap senior day, Heupel said the veteran players he mostly inherited from the Pruitt era “laid a rock-solid foundation for this program.”

'Something that can last 10 years'

Tennessee running back Jabari Small (2) celebrates a touchdown with Tennessee offensive lineman Jerome Carvin (75) during an SEC conference game between Tennessee and Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.
Tennessee running back Jabari Small (2) celebrates a touchdown with Tennessee offensive lineman Jerome Carvin (75) during an SEC conference game between Tennessee and Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.

The acceleration of UT’s success won’t be completely in Heupel’s hands.

Will quarterback Hendon Hooker return to play one more season or declare for the NFL Draft? He’s not telling us yet.

Will wide receiver Cedric Tillman come back or head to the NFL? He also deflected until a later date.

If they return, the Vols could hit another gear. If they don’t, Heupel may have to tap the brakes just a bit.

But players have harped all season on the staying power of this coaching staff’s approach. They love their positivity. They love their aggressive brand of football. They love their ability to develop players who previously underperformed.

They think this can last, and none have been more vocal than Theo Jackson — the super senior safety who got the first interception returned for a TD of his career in his final game at Neyland Stadium.

“When Coach Heup and all of them got here, the first thing they brought in was positivity (and) lifting up each other, and we bought into that,” Jackson said. “(This can last) because there is no dropoff. When the young guys get in, they produce the way older ones do.

“I see that as being something that can last 10 years.”

Reach Adam Sparks at adam.sparks@knoxnews.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Does Josh Heupel have staying power? Tennessee football players believe it can last

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