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For The R3cord: Key to Josh Heupel finding recruiting success against top SEC teams

On3 imageby:Dan Morrison05/18/23

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In two seasons, Josh Heupel has turned the Tennessee Volunteers into a legitimate contender in the SEC East. Now, coming off a win in the Orange Bowl, Heupel needs to find recruiting success to maintain that level of production.

During an episode of For the R3cord, Shannon Terry and Volquest’s Brent Hubbs and Austin Price broke down how Heupel can successfully recruit against top SEC teams.

“It’s one thing to go get a Nico [Iamaleava], it’s another thing to stack six five-stars out of 32 a year and enter that world,” Terry said. “How does Tennessee go back to the days of [Phillip] Fulmer, how does Tennessee recruit at that upper, top five level, what’s he got to do?”

“Not a lot of talent in Tennessee. So, what’s the plan?”

According to the On3 Industry recruiting rankings, there aren’t any five-star recruits in the state of Tennessee for the Class of 2024. There are nine four-star recruits, though. However, in the state of Georgia, there are five five-star recruits and dozens of four-star recruits. This makes life easier for Josh Heupel’s biggest challenge, Kirby Smart.

“Well, the talent is better than it was when Fulmer was here in the state of Tennessee,” Hubbs said. “The problem that Tennessee has is Jim Donnan and Ray Goff is not coaching at Georgia. So, you’re not going to go down there and get Jamal Lewis, Deon Grant, and Cosey Coleman and pull those guys out.”

More than just Georgia, the entire recruiting footprint for Josh Heupel and Tennessee has improved. That, in turn, has made recruiting that much harder.

“And I don’t want to take anything away from what Fulmer accomplished, but Clemson was an afterthought when Phillip Fulmer was recruiting South Carolina and so was South Carolina for that matter…Yeah, LSU was not very good. I mean, you’re not supposed to go to Louisiana.”

Price pointed out that during the Fulmer years, even Alabama was “iffy.”

“I think you can go to Virginia. I think you need to go to Virginia and recruit, I think you need to go [to] other places you’ve got ties. You see them heavily involved in Missouri, and you’ve got to continue to win to be able to stack and get your fair share,” Hubbs explained.

“To say you’re gonna go in and take a bunch of guys from Georgia or Alabama that those two schools want, you know, I think that’s a crazy thought. So, you go different places. California. Can Nico help you with California kids? The other thing we’re seeing too is the evolving of the transfer portal. Can you spot gap somebody? Can you fill a spot and turn a team that’s got a chance to be a pretty good team into an exceptional team? Those are the types of things that you have to do with your roster management moving forward.”

As of now, Tennessee has the ninth-ranked recruiting class in the 2024 cycle. That’s with 11 current commits. However, there is plenty of time for that to change.

Josh Heupel on how the perception of Tennessee has changed

In the two years that he’s run the program, Josh Heupel has noticed a major change on the recruiting trail. During his time there, he’s gone from recruiting players to a vision, to being able to show proof of concept. That, in turn, has made things much easier.

“Our first recruiting cycle here, we get here really at the beginning of February. I got named at the very end of January. You’re talking about what the culture was and you’re saying this is what it’s going to look like. Now, they’ve had a chance to experience it, see it when they’re here on campus, watch it on TV, watch it live and in person, and understand that we’re going to play the most exciting brand of football in college athletics. Extremely aggressive in all three phases of the game. We’re gonna let our guys pin their ears back and go play with an aggressive nature,” Heupel said.

“So, the conversations, it’s like two worlds that are completely separated and so far apart from each other as far as where we’re at now and where we started, and people can see the momentum that we have. They understand we’re continuing to improve and when we get people here on Rocky Top, they get a chance to see the university, see the city of Knoxville, feel the energy from our fanbase, man, this is a really unique environment right now and we’re able to recruit at an elite level.”