Josh Heupel offense will test Tennessee Vols stamina and test opponents even more | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee football fans can’t be sure whether their team will be better or worse next season. But they can be sure it will be different.

UT had hired four football coaches in 13 seasons before it hired Josh Heupel from Central Florida last Wednesday. This transition likely will be the most drastic, though.

That’s because the up-tempo offense that Heupel orchestrates is really an “up-up-tempo” offense.

As Houston coach Dana Holgorsen put it before his team took on UCF last season, “Everybody runs tempo, but not as fast as they go. They go extra-fast.”

Former Tennessee assistant coach Willie Martinez is as aware of the speed as anyone. As UCF's secondary coach, he had to contend with it daily in practice.

"I got mad with my guys in practice," Martinez said last season. "We play them in a scrimmage and we want to celebrate a pass break-up on first down.

"There's only one problem. The offense is already lining up to go again."

The theme of UCF victories in recent years often has centered around an opponent’s failure to keep up with the Knights’ breakneck offensive pace.

Tennessee players already have gotten the message. You can read it in tweets, which stress that extra running will be required.

Heupel was introduced to the havoc that a no-huddle, up-tempo offense can create when he was a quarterbacks coach at Oklahoma, where Kevin Wilson was the offensive coordinator.

You can’t fully appreciate the defensive chaos unless you’re watching it live. I realized that when I covered the Florida-Oklahoma national championship game, which the Gators won by 10 points in 2009. I had never seen an offense run at Oklahoma's speed.

For much of the game, Florida’s defense scrambled frantically to line up before Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford took the snap. The Sooners reeled off plays so swiftly, I wondered if Florida’s defense might keel over en masse during the fourth quarter.

Josh Heupel speaks during a press conference announcing his hiring as football head coach for the University of Tennessee, in the Stokely Family Media Center in Neyland Stadium, in Knoxville, Tenn., Wednesday, Jan.27, 2021.

Tennessee picked up its tempo at times last season in hopes of catching opposing defenses off guard. But that was nothing like the down-after-down tempo that drained the energy from UCF opponents.

Remember how much Alabama coach Nick Saban dreaded playing up-tempo teams, like the ones Hugh Freeze once fielded at Ole Miss? Since then, Alabama has used the up-tempo approach itself.

Ideally, an up-tempo offense can serve as an equalizer. It could give the Vols a better chance for success against more talented teams. But the players have to be as committed to it as the coaches are.

Commitment shouldn’t be a problem for UT. After a 3-7 season, the Vols should be open to anything — even if it means they could be leg-weary after each practice.

How will UT’s personnel fit the system? Perhaps, better than you think.

Despite Tennessee's losses through numerous transfers, it still has four quarterbacks, including three with starting experience, and a handful of four-star recruits at wide receiver. That’s not what you would expect from a 3-7 team.

Harrison Bailey, who showed promise in his late-season starts as a freshman, is a drop-back passer who isn’t averse to running when necessary. He also demonstrated poise while sorting out receivers in the secondary.

Highly recruited Kaidon Salter, who already has enrolled at UT, is more athletic than Bailey and has a strong arm. Junior-to-be Brian Maurer, who has starting experience, is a running threat, as is Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker.

Wide receivers Malachi Wideman, Jalin Hyatt, Jimmy Holiday and Jimmy Callaway should benefit from the new offense in their second season at Tennessee. So should wide receiver Velus Jones, a Southern Cal transfer who came on strong at the end of the 2020 season. Cedric Tillman will offer more depth to the wide receiving corps.

All Tennessee receivers should be encouraged by the stats of UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel. He averaged 41 passes per game last season. Central Florida also had three running backs rush for more than 300 yards.

When you go as fast as Heupel’s offense, there can be plenty of plays for everybody.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or john.adams@knoxnews.com. Follow him at twitter.com/johnadamskns.