Tennessee coach Josh Heupel will ultimately be judged on how the Vols perform in the fall. However, that level of success will be determined by what Heupel and his staff are able to accomplish in June.
One could make a strong argument that there is no more important time for Heupel than the immediate future. June is an incredibly important month in recruiting and Heupel has an incredibly difficult task at hand, beat the Alabamas and Georgias of the world in recruiting elite high school prospects. That won’t be easy and to this point it hasn’t proven to be.
Tennessee ranked 10th in the nation in recruiting for the 2023 class. That’s simply not good enough. The Vols were sixth in the SEC if you include Texas and Oklahoma, who were third and fourth, respectively, and will join the SEC in 2024. For the record, Alabama was No. 1 in the nation followed by Georgia at No. 2.
Heupel has an edge on his SEC rivals. He’s ahead of the curve in offensive schematics and game planning. However, that can only take one so far. Former Florida coach Steve Spurrier is proof of that. He, like Heupel, was considered an offensive guru. However, the Gators came sputtering back to earth when recruiting wavered. Spurrier stepped down following the 2001 season.
Besides Heupel’s offensive acumen, the Vols have another key aspect on their side. Tennessee has seemingly mastered the loose transfer portal and NIL deals that come with it. However, relying on transfers is still risky, even if it’s more solvent than in years past. At some point, Tennessee’s collective could shrink if the Vols don’t get elite results on the field. Then, there’s always the possibility that Tennessee – or any other school – could just miss on some key transfers. The NIL and transfer portal should be looked at as a way to jump start a championship program, not sustain one.
Heupel doesn’t have to win every recruiting battle against Bama and the Bulldogs. However, winning some in this recruiting cycle would signify a change. Between the two UT rivals, the Vols would certainly rather topple Georgia in recruiting since there are so many top prospects near Knoxville. It only takes a few to start a pipeline from Atlanta into Tennessee – or at least a trickle.
Heupel has laid an incredible foundation. The Vols were championship contenders in just his second season and Tennessee has a fantastic mix of seasoned recruiters and young go-getters. Now, we’ll find out if they can compete with the best recruiters in college football. However, much of the challenge at hand is up to Heupel. He must be the lead recruiter – or at least the closer – just like Alabama coach Nick Saban and Georgia coach Kirby Smart have proven to be.
While Heupel’s future at Tennessee could be determined by recruiting this month, it won’t likely be readily apparent. Tennessee should still win 10 or more games this season and be in the championship picture. However, the Vols are doing so with former coach Jeremy Pruitt’s recruits and more recent transfers. That needs to change – like the weather in June.