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Tennessee football is surging; Josh Heupel, staff continuity are at root of Vols' early success

While much of the SEC East had significant turnover, Josh Heupel's staff returned in 2022 almost intact

Tennessee football is moving fast on the field under Josh Heupel with an uptempo, frenetic offense and fast off the field as the Volunteers have climbed to the No. 11 spot in the Associated Press Top 25.

It’s Tennessee’s highest ranking since 2016, and the Vols (3-0) opened as nearly double-digit favorites (9.5) this week against erstwhile Southeastern Conference Eastern Division nemesis Florida (2-1, 0-1) – which has won 16 of the past 17 meetings in the series.

Not to be overlooked in Tennessee’s ahead-of-the-curve success under Heupel has been the former Oklahoma quarterback and Central Florida head coach’s ability to assemble and retain a quality group of assistant coaches.

Consider: Florida has an entirely new staff in Gainesville after Scott Stricklin fired Dan Mullen & Co. late in 2021; Georgia lost defensive coordinator Dan Lanning to the top job at Oregon and prized offensive assistant Cortez Hankton to SEC rival LSU; Kentucky lost co-defensive coordinator Jon Sumrall to the head job at Troy and offensive coordinator Liam Coen to an NFL play-caller position; Vanderbilt likewise moved on from David Raih as offensive coordinator to promote Joey Lynch after the 2021 season.

Meanwhile, Heupel lost one offensive assistant – Kodi Burns to an assistant job in the NFL – and already had his replacement on staff.

“We’re going to have to staff members that have opportunities to further their careers as we continue and you want that for your staff,” Heupel told FootballScoop Wednesday on the SEC coaches’ teleconference. “You just don’t want them to leave for lateral moves.

“Kelsey (Pope) was a no-brainer for us, for me, in becoming a full-time member of staff. Who he is, how he communicates, his ability to be a great teacher, develop relationships. He’s the right culture fit and right coach fit.”

Heupel also praised the quality of life for the Vols’ coaches in East Tennessee.

“I think the culture inside of the building is a huge part of being able to retain people. An environment where you compete really hard and work really hard, there’s just no getting around it in college football, but you enjoy the people you’re working with,” Heupel said. “From the energy and relationships to the coaches to the community with the wives where they enjoy being with each other, you’re able to include your family, the success we have on the field with building something. And the players and their attitudes and demeanors.

“The environment and culture are a huge part of being able to retain people. I attribute it to all those factors. And the last piece for me, and I didn’t realize this until I got there. obviously facilities and resources here at UT are unsurpassed but this is a great place to live. it is. We’re truly, I call it a college city. Everything is orange and white. At the same time, it’s big enough where there’s unique opportunities to enjoy time away from the game and job.”

Heupel also has been empowered to reinvest in his staff.

In addition to his own reworked contract, which included a seven-figure raise but still left Heupel ranked 11th among SEC head coaches, Heupel doled out raises of various levels to every single assistant coach he brought back from the 2021 campaign that culminated in a Music City Bowl berth.

The Vols’ assistant coaching salary pool is hovering around a school record at nearly $7 million, but it’s still well short of many competitors – including Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Florida, and Ohio State, among others, who have in many cases zoomed past $8 million in assistant coaching monies.

“Just as we’re able to build and show success, and create momentum here, the opportunity to continue to give them opportunities to grow and certainly the financial side is a piece of that,” Heupel said of the assistants’ new deals. “Our administration does a good job realizing the talent we have in the building (on staff) and we want to continue to retain those guys.”