Josh Heupel is the Tennessee Vols’ fifth head coach since parting ways with Phillip Fulmer in 2008.

And he might be the coach with the biggest hill to climb to return the Vols to respectability.

Every coach hired since Lane Kiffin has faced a tougher situation than the previous head coach.

Derek Dooley was in a tough spot because he was hired late in the recruiting cycle. Plus he had to clean up some of Kiffin’s mess. But then Dooley steadily drove the program into the ground, culminating with a disappointing 2012 season that saw Tennessee go 5-7 while giving up 35 points per game.

Butch Jones then inherited a program that had no depth — especially at the offensive line position. There were also APR issues that Jones had to correct. The program was trending up under Jones, before topping out in 2016 and then crashing in 2017. Jones left behind a toxic environment for Jeremy Pruitt, who was hired in late 2017.

Pruitt improved the talent on the roster, but he proved to be an inadequate “CEO” of a football program. The former Alabama defensive coordinator put the program in its deepest hole yet, thanks to an exodus of talent and incoming NCAA sanctions (there were multiple Level I violations under Pruitt).

As a result of Pruitt’s ineptitude, Heupel is taking over a program that is losing a ridiculous amount of talent. And because of likely scholarship reductions, Heupel is going to have massive issues replacing that talent in the coming years.

247Sports revealed its transfer portal rankings this week and they highlight the amount of talent that Tennessee is losing to the portal.

Four of the players in the top 12 are players who signed with Tennessee. There are six total UT players in the top 50. And that doesn’t include linebacker Quavaris Crouch, who is also in the portal. Then there are players like Dylan Brooks, Cody Brown, and J’Marion Gooch who signed with the Vols during the 2021 recruiting cycle but were recently released from their respective National Letters of Intent.

Heupel isn’t going to turn Tennessee’s football program around overnight. It’s going to take some time. Fans are going to have to be extremely patient with Heupel — he’s in the toughest spot yet for UT a head coach.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Vols. There’s some quality quarterback talent on the roster, which is at least one reason for optimism. Harrison Bailey, Hendon Hooker, Kaidon Salter, and Brian Maurer are all talented players that could thrive under Heupel.

Just don’t expect them to thrive from day one. Heupel and his staff have a lot of work to do in the coming months/years to get Tennessee back to where it once was.

Will Heupel be the guy who finally cracks the code and gets the Vols back among the elite programs in football?

It’s impossible to know. The one thing I know for sure, though, is that if fans aren’t patient with Heupel, the next coach will be in an even worse position and the rebuilding cycle will start over once again.

Featured image via James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports


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