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A String of Recruiting Victories Has Heupel’s Vols Trending Upwards

The first few months in the Josh Heupel era at Tennessee has been, let’s say, a slow burn. 

Fans are cautious, although some more optimistic than others, about just how quickly this new staff can pull Tennessee out of turmoil and into greener pastures.

As the first few weeks went on and spring practice began to unfold, the new coaching staff were immediately met with challenges. An incident on campus resulted in four players being suspended (two of which are now in the transfer portal), and the Orange and White game showed Vol Nation just how big of a depth concern the team had.

But just like any Tennessee offseason, there’s usually an initial moment that starts to get the gears turning and create a little noise. And luckily, within days of the Orange and White game, coach Heupel had his moment.

Since that spring game was played on Apr. 24, Tennessee has received a commitment from four players in the transfer portal and hit a home run in landing an official commitment from their 2022 quarterback.

Just like that, what goes around comes around, and the excitement has started to fill the air once again.

Quite frankly, there’s a reason for it to be. There are always going to be reasons to be wary, especially of late in Knoxville, but when looking at the roster additions Heupel has made through the transfer portal you can see the staff is hard at work.

There’s still one question that remains though. Can these incoming players create enough of an impact with such a delayed start into the offseason? Well, that’s to be seen. But each player has the opportunity to.

Tennessee Needed Immediate Help From the Transfer Portal. And They Got It.

While the timing may have not been ideal, as none of the four players were able to participate in Tennessee’s spring practices, landing these talented players was a massive victory for the staff. Not only have they found immediate help to bolster the defense, but it is also proven quality talent from Division 1 football. 

And on the offensive side of the ball, Tennessee has added two players that will absolutely raise their respective positional rooms to new competitive heights while they compete for a starting role.

Arguably the biggest get of the offseason was Juwan Mitchell, a linebacker who transferred from Texas. Mitchell led the Longhorns in tackles last year, racking up 62 in his 10 games played. The 6’ 1”, 230-pound senior was a one-man wrecking crew last season and fills in one of the biggest holes on Tennessee’s defense.

In fact, that’s almost an understatement. After prominent players from Tennessee’s linebacker unit hit the transfer portal this offseason, and it was barraged by a series of injuries, this position was a glaring weakness for new linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary. Now, one of the Big 12’s best linebackers will be matched up with Jeremy Banks and Roman Harrison, who are still working their way back from injuries.

To help him out, from the transfer portal by way of USC, is defensive lineman Caleb Tremblay. If there was any position giving the linebackers a run for their money as the biggest concern, it was the defensive line. Again, injuries tore apart the group, even with talent still being developed as well.

Originally a four-star prospect in the 2018 class, Tremblay provides the size that Tennessee desperately needs in this class. After watching the spring game, only seeing about six defensive lineman shuffle through the rotation certainly raised some red flags.

When a player enters the transfer portal, it’s often after they couldn’t get things going for one reason or another the season prior. That’s especially true in the case of Tremblay, who only played in two games for the Trojans last year. But it was his freshman season that proves why he was the top-ranked recruit in California. In 2019, Tremblay broke out with 10 solo tackles in 16 total, as well as three tackles for a loss and a pair of sacks.

Tennessee needed help on the defensive side of the ball immediately after the Orange and White game. Fortunately for them, that help came in the form of a Texas linebacker and Southern California defensive lineman. Both Mitchell and Tremblay should see plenty of opportunity in 2021.

Coach Halzle Is Ready To Turn His Quarterbacks Loose on the Field

If there was any takeaway from the offensive additions to next year’s team, it’s that coach Heupel is going to try to add talent to this roster by any means necessary.

Even at wide receiver and quarterback, two positions that on their own already host a fair amount of talent, Tennessee has shown that competition will not only be welcomed at Tennessee but that it should be expected within any group.

Luckily, Heupel seemed to have landed two guys that are expected to compete right away for the Vols.

First up was Joe Milton, a quarterback who transferred to Rocky Top after spending three seasons at Michigan.

Milton is added into an already fairly full quarterback room, and that doesn’t even count Kaidon Salter, who is currently away from the team while under suspension. But for quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle, the more the merrier.

“We’re going to turn them loose on Saturdays,” said Halzle in his opening press conference at Tennessee. “We’re going to put a lot on our quarterback.”

After seeing the offensive scheme unfold over the last few weeks during spring practice, there’s no doubt in saying that his original statement is still on track. And it was only echoed once again a few months later at the beginning of April.

“Me and Coach Halzle clicked the very first phone call we had,” said Tayven Jackson, a four-star quarterback and 2022 Tennessee commit, when talking to Volquest after his commitment on Apr. 28. “He said it straight up, ‘you come here and I’m going to let you rip it. I’m going to get you ready and then I’m going to get you out on the field and let you rip that thing.’ And that’s exactly what I want to do as a quarterback.”

Clearly, whether it was in February during his introductory press conference, in March on the practice field, or in April talking to recruits, Tennessee plans on finding a quarterback who can sling the ball.

That guy may or may not end up being Joe Milton, but he certainly has a chance. Heupel made it clear following the spring game that he still has a lot of work to do with all the quarterbacks, and at least publicly hasn’t shown any signs of showing his hand.

Milton’s career in Ann Arbor never really took off. Although, it was his final season in 2020 in which he was able to boost his own stat sheet. Appearing in just 13 games during his career, Milton finished with 1,194 yards on 56.6 percent passing. He also threw five touchdowns to six interceptions in that span.

Tennessee fans have been begging for a legitimate, open, quarterback competition for years now. And with Hooker, Maurer, Bailey, Salter, and now Milton all heading into the summer without a named starter, that legitimate competition is right around the corner.

Returning Tennessee Talent to Tennessee

“At the same time, the most important thing that we do is lock down our borders,” said Heupel during his introductory press conference at Tennessee from January. “We have to keep the kids inside of this state here, and that’s for multiple reasons.”

Since his arrival, Heupel has been adamant about making in-state recruiting a top priority for Tennessee. However, at the beginning of May, he showed that went beyond just high-school recruiting.

On May 5, JaVonta Payton announced he would be transferring from Mississippi State to Tennessee. Payton, a Nashville native and graduate of Hillsboro High School in Nashville, spent the last two seasons with the Bulldogs and attended junior college before his time in Starkville.

Payton’s commitment is significant in two specific areas on and off the field.

Off the field, he is proof of Heupel’s original promise to make in-state players a priority. And in this case, it was about returning a Tennessee talent to the Volunteer State.

But on the field, Payton has the upside to be a quality and productive receiver in what is shaping out to be a massive receivers room. In the 2020 season, Payton totaled 225 yards on 19 catches and added in a touchdown haul as well. But with increased drama throughout the Bulldogs season, Payton got lost in the shuffle.

At Tennessee though, he will be added into one of the more versatile groups in the division. Tennessee already boasted size, speed, and skill before Payton’s addition. But he only will give Heupel, Halzle, and receivers coach Kodi Burns even more options during the season.

As long as this staff can find the quarterback that they believe in, the receivers should have no problem stuffing the stat sheet this season. And JaVonte Payton will surely be a part of that success somehow.

As we stand here about a week into May, there is much more optimism now than when we stood here a month ago. And definitely two months ago.

These additions aren’t necessarily going to turn Tennessee into an undeniable contender, but it does do two important things. On one hand, it allows Tennessee to fill in some of its biggest gaps with the additions of Mitchell and Tremblay on defense. And on the other hand, the expected competitions on the offensive side of the ball should point towards initial future success for coach Heupel. 

But that is all still to be seen.

All Photos Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics Communications.

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