New Tennessee Vols head coach Josh Heupel is going to have his hands full trying to turn things around in Knoxville.
Heupel is taking over a less-than-ideal situation. The Vols just fired previous head coach Jeremy Pruitt due to an investigation into impermissible benefits that is likely going to lead to NCAA sanctions.
It’s possible that Tennessee will be faced with a bowl ban and a loss of scholarships, which will make the rebuild on Rocky Top a tall challenge.
On top of the potential NCAA issues, there are also roster issues. Tennessee has dealt with an inordinate amount of attrition this offseason.
The Vols have lost a few key players to graduation (offensive lineman Trey Smith and wide receiver Josh Palmer being the most notable players). They’ve lost even more to the transfer portal.
Offensive lineman Wanya Morris, running back Eric Gray, and defensive back Keyshawn Lawrence have all transferred to Oklahoma. Wide receiver Brandon Johnson and offenisve lineman Marcus Tatum transferred to UCF. Quarterbacks JT Shrout and Jarrett Guarantano transferred to Colorado and Washington State, respectively. Others, including linebackers Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch, are still at UT but could be exploring their options. Offensive lineman Jahmir Johnson is currently in the transfer portal.
Thanks to the attrition, the Vols rank near the bottom of a key ESPN metric that’s used to measure expected success.
According to Bill Barnwell, Tennessee is No. 117 in the nation in returning production.
The Vols are No. 13 in returning production in the SEC (South Carolina is the only program below UT).
Tennessee is going to be lacking in experience in Heupel’s first year. And that lack of experience will undoubtedly show up on game day from time to time.
However, just because the Vols don’t have a lot of returning production, doesn’t mean the roster is void of talent. Heupel has three solid options at quarterback to work with (Harrison Bailey, Kaidon Salter, and Hendon Hooker). There are also a couple of dynamic playmakers at wide receiver (Jalin Hyatt and Velus Jones), along with a few veteran offensive linemen in Cade Mays, Cooper Mays, Darnell Wright, and Jerome Carvin.
The cupboard isn’t completely bare — Heupel just needs to go shopping for a few items.
Fans are going to need to be patient with Heupel. He’s in a tough situation, with a roster that’s lacking depth. And he’s trying to instill a new culture in the locker room. It’s not going to happen overnight.
It feels like the Vols are perpetually “rebuilding”. Maybe Josh Heupel is the coach that can finally get the program back on solid ground for the first time in over a decade.
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