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Sources confirm Heupel expected to be Tennessee coach

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There was a line of thought that Danny White wouldn't hire a coach at the University of Tennessee that White previously had hired at another institution.

Josh Heupel has surfaced as the apparent exception to that notion.

A 28-game winner in three seasons as head coach at Central Florida, Heupel has emerged as White's top Rocky Top target -- after an eventful, abbreviated search that saw Tennessee's efforts rebuffed by a couple candidates and White turning to a familiar face. VolQuest.com's Austin Price first reported that Heupel had emerged as Tennessee's newest top target to replace the fired Jeremy Pruitt, who exited the program under internal and NCAA investigation.

A source late Tuesday night/Wednesday morning with direct knowledge, when asked if Tennessee's search was over, simply told FootballScoop, "Yes." The same source, when asked if the search was going to take a coach from UCF to UT said, "I do."

Multiple college coaches also told FootballScoop that the industry buzz late Tuesday night was that Tennessee had dialed in on Heupel.

White hired Heupel after UCF's undefeated 2017 season, when Scott Frost left the Knights for Nebraska, Frost's alma mater.

A former consensus All-American quarterback at Oklahoma, Heupel's coaching trajectory has been a fairly swift upward arc. He spent five years as quarterbacks coach for the Sooners under legendary Bob Stoops, spent four years as their co-offensive coordinator, was at Utah State for a year and then Missouri's offensive coordinator for two seasons prior to taking over at UCF.

Now the 42-year-old Heupel is on the verge of becoming a Power-5 head coach and reuniting with White just days after White's exit to Rocky Top.

The Vols had discussed their head coaching vacancy with a number of candidates, with sources who confirmed to FootballScoop that those candidates that were vetted and/or engaged in dialogue with White and Parker Executive Search included Coastal Carolina's Jamey Chadwell, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, SMU's Sonny Dykes, Minnesota's PJ Fleck and Penn State's James Franklin.

Additionally, per sources, White spoke Tuesday afternoon with Vols interim Kevin Steele and then fully pivoted to Heupel.

Per sources, the Vols made two separate runs at Franklin. Tennessee's interest in Chadwell never scratched below the surface, though sources confirmed Chadwell and White talked Monday.

“I know from talking to people at Tennessee, they just hit a wall in their search (Tuesday),” said one source with knowledge of the Vols' process.

Important to note on Heupel's contract situation: He would have owed Central Florida a $10 million buyout to leave prior to the postseason conclusion of the Knights' season; that buyout immediately dropped to 50% of the remaining salary on Heupel's contract – or roughly $3.45 million.

Heupel won 22 games in his first two seasons as Frost's successor in Orlando. Heupel lost offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby to Lane Kiffin's Ole Miss staff after the 2019 season, but the Knights still averaged more than 42 points per game – eighth in the nation – en route to a 6-4 finish.

Lebby actually interviewed for the Vols' offensive coordinator position two years ago, but Pruitt eventually hired Jim Chaney. A source with knowledge of the situation told FootballScoop “no shot” that Lebby could be lured away from Ole Miss and to Knoxville to reunite with Heupel. Ole Miss awarded Lebby a raise and contract extension on the heels of Kiffin's debut season that concluded with an Outback Bowl-win against top-10 Indiana.

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