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Tennessee football: Familiarity with staff, personal experience giving Josh Heupel schematic advantage

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Josh Heupel had the perfect response to Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Mike Leach. The Tennessee football head coach played quarterback for Leach when Leach was the Oklahoma Sooners’ offensive coordinator in 1999.

Earlier in the week, Leach noted that Hendon Hooker ran a play similar to what he designed for Heupel over 20 years ago. He added that Hooker ran it better. Heupel took it as a compliment.

“Sure, there’s some elements of things that I ran as a player, and if I’m doing my job, then Hendon’s getting elite coaching and probably executing a little bit better than I did back in the day,” Heupel said in response to the quote at Wednesday’s SEC teleconference.

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Although he doesn’t run the same air raid Leach runs, Heupel has many elements in his scheme, even if there’s a lot more balance. There’s a combination of the veer and the run and shoot with what Heupel does.

However, playing for a guy like Leach, who is a Hal Mumme disciple and was so far ahead of the curve as an offensive coach, seems to have given Heupel a huge advantage. He’s only expounded on it.

In addition to learning from Leach, Heupel also studied as a coach under Kevin Wilson and Matt Wells. People he worked with along the way helped him perfect his offense.

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Familiarity with many of those people, particularly on this staff, has helped Tennessee football gain an edge. Joey Halzel, Alex Golesh and Glen Elarbee are part of that familiarity.

“Obviously Joey and I have been together over a decade,” he said. “Alex has been with us for three years now, does a phenomenal job. Glen Elarbee and I have been together, I think this is year seven, so even some of the young coaches that are in our staff room either played for me or have been with me for an extended period of time.”

Halze was a quarterback for OU from 2006 to 2008, when Heupel was the quarterbacks coach there. He’s worked with Heupel every year since in on-field and off-field roles.

Golesh was a graduate assistant with OU in 2008. He bounced around a lot after that, but the two reunited in 2020, when Golesh replaced Jeff Lebby as the UCF Knights offensive coordinator.

Elarbee and Heupel connected when Heupel took over as the Missouri Tigers offensive coordinator in 2016 under Barry Odom. They have stayed together since.

“We’re in the same system,” Heupel said. “We think along the same lines, but everybody’s able to bring ideas so we can function at a high level in game-planning, but also during the course of the game and make subtle tweaks to what we’re doing to put our kids in the best position.”

It’s hard to underrate this level of familiarity with such a cutting-edge offense. Only one staff member left from this past year, wide receivers coach Kodi Burns.

Rather than find some high-profile replacement, Heupel promoted from within, bringing up Kelsey Pope from an off-field role. Again, he was prioritizing familiarity over anything else.

That carries over to the players as well. So many starters back playing in the same system has outweighed some of the talent disadvantages they should have.

“As we’ve gotten further in it with our players, too, their ability to adjust to things within the course of the game, certainly when we’re on the sidelines or at halftime, but even within the course of a drive, they understand what we’re doing and can adjust on the fly,” he said. “I think all of those things have lended themselves to playing really good football.”

Put all of this together, and you can see why Tennessee football’s offense looks so far ahead of the curve in the SEC. Heupel is using what he learned dating back to his playing days while relying on familiarity.

Those two things together can’t be underestimated, and it has helped the entire coaching staff, particularly on offense. He said there’s no “secret sauce” to devising a game plan, and he’s probably right. It’s about experience.

“We watch a lot of tape on Sunday and come together as a staff on Monday and put those things together, make some tweaks to it, then get into situational football as it unfolds,” he said. “The process of it really hasn’t changed much over the years.”

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