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Tennessee Football: Josh Heupel’s offense isn’t just a gimmick

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Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel knows what the football community is saying about his offense. He responded to some of the overt criticism of his offense this week.

Heupel’s offense is considered by some to be too gimmicky and not enough based in pro-style principles. That leads to skill-position players turning into stars in college before having to adapt to a professional model. Moreover, that leads to criticism that Heupel’s offense isn’t fundamentally sound and will eventually be figured out like a Rubik’s Cube. Heupel isn’t buying that.

“Ten years ago I think there was a trickle-down effect from the NFL to college,” Heupel said at the Big Orange Caravan this week. “I think it’s the exact opposite in today’s landscape. Over the last three cycles, or the last three drafts, we’ve had five wide receivers (selected in the NFL Draft). I’ve had more wide receivers drafted in the last three years than any other college coach. 

“I think that speaks to what we’re doing, how we’re developing those guys, those guys understanding coverages, concepts, but also how to beat man coverage. That can be press, that can be off-technique. That doesn’t just happen by accident. I think what we do does translate in how those guys developed.”

It’s hard to argue with Heupel because there just isn’t enough data to justify either side of the argument. Time will tell if Heupel’s offense is gimmicky or just good, sound, fundamental football. Odds are the latter will be the case. Why? Because there is really no such thing as a “pro-style” offense anymore. There are bits and pieces of new innovative offenses throughout the NFL. The Kansas City Chiefs just won a Super Bowl with an offense that doesn’t look typical by old-fashioned standards. The Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens have had success with offenses that are far from ordinary.

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Simply put, pro-style isn’t what it used to be. There are too many advantages given to offenses via recent rule changes in the NFL and, especially, college football. Will there be some adaptation by Tennessee’s receivers and quarterbacks now and in the future to succeed in the NFL? Absolutely. Do the Vols that are headed to the pros have to learn a whole new game of football? Certainly not.

Heupel’s concepts are built on reading defensive backs pre-snap and post-snap. Some of the decisions made by Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker were far too easy last season because his receivers were far too open. If I’m an NFL team, I’m looking at Heupel as the future, not a disruption in the evolution of the game.

There is one rule change that was recently made that could work against Heupel’s style of offense, which is partly predicated on high tempo. The NCAA recently altered a rule in which the play clock will not stop after first downs until the final two minutes of each half. That could be significant since Heupel likes to tire out a defense. However, the change should be minimal. Heupel’s offense is designed to tire an offense during a drive, not throughout a game. Therefore a few less plays shouldn’t dent the Vols’ ability to light up a scoreboard. 

Heupel wants to have defenses on their heels in the first quarter, not just grind a defense down for later in the game. That is more reminiscent of a power running attack. The Vols can run the football but they’re not trying to “pound the rock” as former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer used to say. Tennessee won close games in the fourth quarter last season, i.e. Pittsburgh and Alabama, by simply making plays in the fourth quarter, not benefitting from a tired defense. 

“It’s not going to change how the game is played for any offense, any style,” Heupel said. “When (the football is) set, it will be ready. It shortens the game in some respects. I guess we’ll see more on the back end what type of changes it actually has.”

Heupel didn’t feel strongly about the changes either way. However, he surely feels strongly that his offense will continue to prosper as long as he has the right players, which he should in his third season at Tennessee.

High school offenses were once called “gimmicky” when they ran up-tempo attacks that were based on spreading the field. Then, that filtered up to college football. Now, even though the evolution is slow, that’s happening with offenses in the NFL, which is picking up some innovative approaches developed by college coaches. 

All of this is really a non-issue for Tennessee. It could be an issue for some former UT quarterbacks and receivers as they make the transition in the NFL. We’ll see. However, there’s over 100 years of proof that a certain offensive approach can have success for decades. The Wing-T, the Triple Option and the run-and-shoot are just three examples. If Heupel’s offense is gimmicky, then it would have already been stopped. It hasn’t been and it likely won’t for years to come. The critics can keep crowing while Heupel’s offense will keep scoring.

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