As Tennessee football officially introduced the members of its offensive staff under new head coach Josh Heupel, the theme was loud and clear. Tempo was the name of the game, and the Vols were going to push it as much as possible.
Just listen to the members who came with Heupel to the UCF Knights in the press conference, which you can see by clicking here. The most famous phrase of the day was “let it rip” by incoming quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle.
New Tennessee football co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Alex Golesh further elaborated on it. He discussed trying to teach the tempo as part of the bigger picture of the offense when installing it with the players. Here’s a bit of what he said.
“You’re teaching it, explaining it and walking through it, but I think until there is wood on the fire and you’re out there with no coaches around, I think it’s really hard. My hope is by practice four, five or six of spring we are hitting at a high tempo, but like any scheme it doesn’t matter because it’s repetition over everything.”
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s be clear: This is all talk. Does Heupel usually run at a faster pace than most schools? Yes. However, his faster pace hasn’t always translated to offensive success, and that’s what people need to understand.
This past year, UCF was first in plays per game with 88. That meant they kept the tempo going. However, Heupel had his worst year of the three, going 6-4. He also had his worst scoring year at 42.2 points per game and only 0.75 points per drive, good for 31st in the nation.
In 2018, meanwhile, he was 30th in plays per game with 76.2, significantly lower than 88. We should note that while he was sixth in 2019, they only ran 78.8 plays per game. What happened during that time? UCF went undefeated in the 2018 regular season and 10-3 in 2019, averaging over 43 points both times and ranking fifth both season in points per drive with over 1.5.
You can go back to Heupel’s time at Missouri for even more data. His first year there, Mizzou went 4-8. They were 14th in plays with 80.4 per game but 87th in points per drive at minus – 0.57 and 48th in points per game with 31.4. The next year, they dropped to 78th in plays per game but went up in points per game with 37.5, good for 14th nationally, and in points per drive with 0.17.
Simply put, faster tempo is actually correlated with less success for Heupel’s teams. Tennessee football fans are going to be familiar with things like that anyway given what they labored under with Butch Jones for five years.
When Jones arrived, his three Central Michigan teams were all in the top 25 in plays per game. He stressed the desire to go no-huddle, and everybody was excited. What people didn’t pay attention to was during his three years with the Cincinnati Bearcats, his plays per game dropped every year, and his teams got better.
As he installed his smashmouth spread, the Vols were 103rd in plays per game in 2013. However, in 2014 and 2015, the offenses were in the top 30 in those stats. To be fair, though, they were getting better those years as well.
Then 2016 happened, and Mike DeBord would go no-huddle and run the play-clock down. Joe Rexrode of The Tennessean dubbed the offense a “fake hurry-up” at the time. It worked, though, and Tennessee football had one of its best offensive seasons ever. They were 71st in plays at 72.4 per game but still averaged 36.4 points per game.
All this shows is that nobody should get swept up in the talk of tempo. New offensive line coach Glen Elarbee, who has been with Heupel the longest as an on-field position coach, gave the most reasonable take on this creative and unique offense. It was about reacting to the defense. Here’s a bit of what he said there.
“Us being able to know how defense is actually structured and adjust at the beginning of the game, that’s probably the biggest change for guys when we first start.”
Taking all of this into account, Vol fans should not get their hopes up for a repeat of what UCF did this past year. Heupel has shown that he’s at his best when the focus is much more about efficiency and not increasing the play-count.
Also, when you’re coaching in the SEC, one thing Phillip Fulmer got right was that there is a toughness factor that makes it hard to be cute and win. Tennessee football can certainly be cutting-edge, but the offense will be grounded in the reality of the conference.