Tennessee coach Josh Heupel is underrated, undervalued and underpaid. There I said it. Now, give me a moment to explain why.
Gabe Jeudy-Lally is the reason. That’s all you need to know. Jeudy-Lally essentially said that he picked Tennessee over other, similar transfer destinations because UT would best prepare him for the NFL, has a positive culture and he might not even start. What? Wait a second.
Was Jeudy-Lally actually saying he transferred without at least a wink-wink agreement that he would land a starting job? Apparently not. His comments during spring camp didn’t sound like it.
Now, this isn’t a column on Jeudy-Lally and how much he’ll play this season. This column is about two things: 1. Heupel’s ability to develop players into NFL prospects is becoming a huge advantage for Tennessee. 2. Heupel has a culture in place that players hear about and want to be a part of.
So let’s start with the initial ascertainment. On the outside looking in, Heupel’s offense can look gimmicky more than fundamentally balanced. It can look like the goal is to push the limits of time to keep an opponent off balance. Well, it is, but that’s not the extent of it.
I don’t care how fast an offensive tackle can get to the line of scrimmage. That player isn’t Darnell Wright. He was ho-hum for much of his career before Heupel helped turn him into a projected first-round draft pick. Moreover, Heupel’s coaching staff turned Byron Young from a supermarket manager to a coveted NFL EDGE rusher. Oh, there’s also that Hendon Hooker guy, the quarterback who couldn’t throw a rock off of Norris Dam before becoming a potential high first-round pick.
All of that is what separates Heupel from other coaches no matter what offense he runs, up tempo or not. Heupel’s players get better under his watch. No argument to be had. Case dismissed.
I’m sure teams continued to make a run at the Vols’ top commitments, like five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava, especially when the Vols lost to Georgia and even up to the point that Tennessee lost to South Carolina. At that point, however, Iamaleava would have been foolish to consider another school. Hooker had turned into a legitimate Heisman candidate.
Consider this for a moment. What if Heupel is the kind of coach that ultimately relies on player development instead of a “gimmicky” offense? That sounds longer lasting and a seemingly has a stronger foundation. That also is reminiscent of Alabama coach Nick Saban. For years, players sat the bench waiting for their turn to shine, enter the NFL with more tread on their tires and never look back. Is that doable in today’s college game with the transfer portal? Is it possible to hold onto depth when players want playing time? That all remains to be seen. However, if any coach can convince players to throw selfish caution to the wind with the belief of getting better, it may be Heupel. Just ask Jeudy-Lally.