Josh Heupel’s success with Tennessee Football last year is far from the first time a head coach with a cutting-edge offensive scheme had success. More often than not in the SEC, they eventually fade away or just flame out.
Defenses eventually figure out the offense, and if they don’t other teams start running it, neutralizing your advantage. Teams around the country are replicating Heupel’s offense right now.
With that in mind, what’s to stop Heupel from going the same route as Gus Malzahn? Like Heupel, Malzahn was hired as an offensive guru and had early success. Also like Heupel, his success as an offensive coordinator in the SEC propelled his head coaching career.
Kevin Sumlin is another offensive coach who had early success with the Texas A&M Aggies but was never able to replicate it. If you are a Tennessee Football fan, the tenure of these two coaches at SEC schools should scare you.
Fortunately for Vol fans, there are examples of offensive gurus lasting. Steve Spurrier had a 12-year career with the Florida Gators and an 11-year career with the South Carolina Gamecocks. Urban Meyer won national titles with Florida and the Ohio State Buckeyes.
So what’s the secret? Well, there are three crucial things for an offensive coach to maintain their level of success for a while. Heupel will be no different, and if these work in his favor, he’ll be fine.
Recruiting at a higher level
Offensive gurus never have to secure top three classes to remain relevant. But they need roughly top seven classes. Spurrier wasn’t a dedicated recruiter, but he used his early success at Florida as a springboard for his credibility in a state loaded with talent.
By the time Spurrier got to South Carolina, he was such a legend in the game that recruiting got a lot easier. Jadeveon Clowney doesn’t go there if Spurrier isn’t the head coach.
Meyer inherited an elite roster at Florida thanks to Ron Zook, which allowed him to win a national title early. That title established his credibility, and he went from Florida to Ohio State, a school loaded with in-state talent.
How can Heupel match what those guys did? He’s not in a state with a ton of football talent? Well, here’s where NIL changes the game. Tennessee Football has the largest NIL collective in Spyre Sports, which should allow the Vols to buy talent from anywhere.
That money combined with the credibility Heupel has built up so far should help the Vols in the transfer portal and on the trail. It’s still early for the 2024 class, but if Heupe’s credibility takes recruiting up a notch, UT is in good shape.
Adapting and adjusting
There are two types of adjustments coaches need to make. One is based on changing defenses and figuring out how to stay ahead on offense. The other is adapting to the personnel on their team any given year.
Meyer has consistently adapted to his personnel. He won a national title with Chris Leak, a drop-back passer at quarterback, and another one in which he went through three quarterbacks. Then there was Tim Tebow and Alex Smith.
Spurrier adjusted to the defenses adjusting. His schemes always had elite running backs, but when he went to South Carolina, he showed a much greater willingness to run the ball and play physical to win, as many people figured out the fun-n-gun by the late 1990s.
In-game play-calling ability
Having a scheme better than anybody else is one thing, but being a better play-caller than anybody who runs it gives you another unique advantage. Spurrier was the best play-caller in the game in his prime.
At Florida, Meyer had Dan Mullen for both his national titles, and then he had Tom Herman at OSU. Now, both have recently been fired within the past couple years, but nobody questioned their play-calling acumen.
Although play-calling doesn’t carry the same weight it used to with so many teams running no-huddle, it’s still a big deal, and Heupel has shown he’s better than most at it. In fact, this is the most underrated part of Heupel’s game.
Last year, Tennessee Football had to mix in its vertical rushing attack at just the right time to make sure its offense worked, and Heupel always knew when to stick with it.
Simply put, there are ways for offensive gurus to maintain success, but just having a cutting-edge scheme won’t be enough. Heupel will have to work to keep the Vols at the level he’s got them at now. Only time will tell if he can do it.