At SEC Media Days on Tuesday, Tennessee football head coach Josh Heupel set out to dispel a notion. He wanted people to understand that, despite the reputation his offenses have, he still is focused on making sure his teams are physical.
Now, when it comes to such conversations, coaches generally are trying to speak broadly and cover for deficiencies. That’s especially true for spread and air raid coaches, who often make a point of saying that they’re teams were physical.
Heupel, however, didn’t just talk about Tennessee football being physical in the broader sense. That was brought up, but he then brought up his understanding of the need to dominate the line of scrimmage. Here’s a bit of what he said at SEC Media Days on the matter.
"“Obviously, we understand that in this league the line of scrimmage is extremely important too, but I think the tempo on the offensive side of the ball gives us the ability to create an advantage in that aspect. We’ve got to continue to recruit and develop big, large people up front that will change the line of scrimmage as we continue to play.”"
Let’s be clear on this. Heupel was telling the truth. A quick look at his track record shows that despite the quarterback-friendly offense he runs, he is all about playing physical, and that likely dates back to his days with the Oklahoma Sooners.
Remember, despite all the talk of quarterback play, Heupel’s offenses are at their best when he runs it significantly more than he passes is. All three years with the UCF Knights, he ran more than he passed it, but the disparity was fewer than three attempts per game last year, and it was his worst year on the job in terms of wins and losses and in scoring.
In 2018, the year he went undefeated and his offense was at its most potent, the disparity was at its largest, above 15 attempts. Simply put, when UCF is able to run the ball more, they are able to get their passing game and their tempo going. Without that ability, the offense stalls.
Before going to UCF, Heupel was offensive coordinator for Barry Odom with the Missouri Tigers. That means he was coaching for a defensive specialist in the SEC, and understanding the ability to be physical is crucial to success in a role like that.
Well, in that role, Heupel had Mizzou averaging 37.5 points a game in 2017. He still ran it more than he threw it that year as well despite Drew Lock getting all the attention. See the trend? A solid ground game makes Heupel’s offense go.
There’s also the nature of the rushing attack. You would think a coach like Heupel would use all-purpose backs primarily to make big plays when he is relying on the rushing attack. However, once again, the data tells another story.
Missouri went from 4-8 in 2016 to 7-6 in 2017 with Heupel as offensive coordinator, and they increased their points per game average by six points. The difference? Larry Rountree III, a power back, joined Ish Witter in the backfield.
When he arrived at UCF and had his best season in 2018, he had two all-purpose backs in Adrian Killins and Greg McCrae, but he also had a 6’1″ 202-pound back in Taj McGowan, which isn’t power back size but is enough to keep the rushing attack physical. Bentavious Thompson, who stands at 6’1″ 197 pounds, replaced McGowan in 2019, and UCF still had success.
Simply put, Heupel’s track record shows a level of versatility with a wide variety of running backs to make his passing game go, and physical backs help with that. Tennessee football has plenty of physical backs in guys like Len’Neth Whitehead, Tee Hodge and Dee Beckwith, so that’s the good news for the Vols.
On the other hand, you need a powerful offensive line to get a power run game going. This is what Heupel understands, particularly with his experience coaching against SEC defenses, and that’s why he is being straightforward with his desire to be physical.
To be fair to Tennessee football fans, everybody remembers Butch Jones bringing the spread in and insisting his team would still be physical at past SEC Media Days. However, Jones actually ran a spread that works in SEC play, as it was a smashmouth spread, which involved the line blocking out of Power-I formations while the formations themselves being mostly shotgun.
Jones’ problems were incompetent in-game management, lack of developing players and a horrendous medical staff and strength and conditioning program. Lots of those things have been corrected already for Heupel, and he appears to be better at all of the rest.
We should also mention that Heupel has SEC experience, which Jones didn’t have coming in. This probably isn’t the guy’s first SEC Media Days experience. As a result, Tennessee football is in good hands with Heupel’s commitment to being physical, and despite him running a spread and Jones’ history, there is every reason to believe he’ll do that.