What Josh Heupel must focus on in Tennessee football recruiting

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

Josh Heupel gained experience recruiting the state of Texas while he was a longtime assistant at Oklahoma early in his coaching career. As a three-year coach at Central Florida, prospects from Florida formed the bulk of his recruiting classes.

Those inroads in talent-rich states can be a bonus for Heupel now that he’s Tennessee’s coach, ESPN national recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert said, but those states don’t compare to the importance of Heupel’s staff owning instate recruiting the next couple years.

“They need to do a good job of better securing instate talent,” Haubert told Knox News, “because I actually think the state of Tennessee is one of those states that is kind of improving in terms of the amount of talent that it turns out.

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“As important as Florida is and maybe those Texas roots, everything has got to start at home.”

Josh Heupel’s first recruiting task

The February signing period begins Wednesday, but Tennessee isn’t expected to make much noise following the Jan. 27 hire of Heupel, after UT fired Jeremy Pruitt on Jan. 18. Heupel is in the midst of building his coaching staff.

Tennessee signed 19 prospects during the December signing period before adding graduate transfer quarterback Hendon Hooker and junior college transfer wide receiver Andison Coby in January.

That leaves just a few spots open in the signing class, some of which could be saved for additional transfers. The junior college season will be played in the spring.

Heupel’s main task as far as the 2021 recruiting class is concerned is keeping Pruitt’s final class intact. The class’ top-ranked signee, four-star defensive end Dylan Brooks, is seeking a release from his national letter of intent, and four-star running back Cody Brown also has hinted at seeking a release, writing “#freeme” last week in a tweet that has since been deleted.

Tennessee’s 2021 class is ranked 15th in the 247Sports Composite.

"He’s inheriting a pretty good (2021) class, overall, so I think now the attention turns to 2022," Haubert said.

A bevy of Tennessee talent around the corner

Tennessee had mixed results securing instate talent during the Pruitt era. It signed three instate prospects in December, while programs like Clemson, Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State plucked off the state’s top talent. But the Vols signed 10 instate prospects in the 2020 recruiting class, the most since also signing 10 from Tennessee in 2015.

The instate talent for the 2022 class is headlined by five-star defensive tackle Walter Nolen of St. Benedict in Cordova, the nation’s No. 2 overall prospect, and four-star quarterback Ty Simpson of Westview High School in Martin. Simpson will announce his commitment on Feb. 19.

It is a deep crop of instate talent, with a dozen players ranked as four- or five-star prospects by the 247Sports Composite and nine featured in the ESPN Top 300.

The 2023 instate talent is strong, too, Haubert said.

“If you can’t win battles in your own backyard, you’re constantly going uphill,” Haubert said. “So, I think that’s got to be job No. 1, is a strong push instate.”

Heupel agrees. He stressed the importance of instate recruiting during his introductory news conference.

“The most important thing that we do is lock down our borders,” Heupel said. “We have to keep the kids inside of this state here.”

That marked a turn from Pruitt, who downplayed the importance of instate recruiting before his first season.

“I don’t think it matters when you go out there and play the game – in any sport – where they’re from,” Pruitt said then. “You want to recruit the best players.”

How UCF recruited under Josh Heupel

UCF’s recruiting trended down under Heupel.

He was hired at UCF in December 2017, taking the reins of a program that went 13-0 that season. His first recruiting class ranked second in the American Athletic Conference – and third nationally among Group of 5 schools – in the 247Sports Composite. The following year, the Knights’ class ranked first in the AAC and second among G5 schools.

But UCF’s 2020 class ranked seventh in the AAC, while its 2021 class ranks fourth in the conference.

The Knights did not sign a four- or five-star prospect throughout his tenure.

This is Heupel’s second stint in the SEC after he was Missouri’s offensive coordinator in 2016-17. Reminding prospects of that experience and pointing to the Missouri offense's statistical success during his two seasons will be a useful sales pitch, Haubert said.

“He’s got to refresh people on the recruiting trail and prospects that he’s spent time in the SEC,” Haubert said.

Heupel has not announced any staff hires, but he could bring along UCF assistants such as offensive line coach Glen Elarbee and wide receivers coach Kodi Burns, who have SEC experience at Missouri and Auburn, respectively.

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at blake.toppmeyer@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.