What we learned about Tennessee football's offense after Vols assistants meet with media

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

The days of Tennessee operating a risk-adverse offense are finished. Quarterbacks will be unleashed to become playmakers.

Tennessee's offensive assistants delivered that message Wednesday during their first time speaking with reporters since they were hired to Josh Heupel’s inaugural coaching staff.

The coaches didn’t directly contrast their offense with that of Tennessee’s conservative approach under previous coach Jeremy Pruitt, but it’s obvious that the Vols are in for a 180-degree change that will put a lot of onus on the quarterback.

Here are five things we learned.

How Tennessee's quarterback competition will unfold

The Vols had a good idea of who their starting quarterback would be exiting spring practice in each of the previous three offseasons. It was Jarrett Guarantano, who had a roller-coaster career throughout 32 starts at UT.

Tennessee will enter this spring with a deep quarterback competition that the staff doesn’t expect will be settled by the time spring practice ends.

“I think this is going to be, at that position, specifically, a six-month process to get to Week 1 and roll with the guy that you feel is the most prepared and the most functional in terms of running the offense,” offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said.

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The competition will feature returners Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer, Virginia Tech graduate transfer Hendon Hooker and four-star signee Kaidon Salter, an early enrollee.

Tennessee will transition from a slow-paced, pro-style system to Heupel’s warp-speed spread offense. That doesn’t translate to pass-frenzied, though.

Golesh said the offense will be balanced. That’s supported by the fact that Central Florida ran the ball on 51.7% of its plays last year with Heupel as coach. Golesh, offensive line coach Glen Elarbee and quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle coached under Heupel at UCF.

The biggest transition for players will be adjusting to the offense's pace.

“I think it’s really hard to simulate the actual speed of how fast we want to play,” Golesh said.

“My hope is by practice four, five, six of spring, we are hitting at a high tempo,” he added.

Vols need a quarterback who can ‘rip it’

The type of quarterback who will thrive in this system is one who welcomes responsibility, Halzle said.

“We’re going to let you rip it all over the field," Halzle said. "We’re going to put a lot on you, and, to me, I would say that is quarterback friendly, because we’re not going to hold your hand. We’re going to teach you. We’re going to mold you into the best that you can be. And then we’re going to turn you loose to go play ball on Saturdays.”

That’s a different message than Tennessee quarterbacks had under Pruitt, who preached ball control and ending each possession with a kick – whether that be an extra point, a field goal or a punt.

“We don’t make guys play scared. We don’t make them afraid to make mistakes. Go out there and cut it loose,” Halzle said.

Josh Heupel liked Jerry Mack’s recruiting chops

Running backs coach Jerry Mack is the only offensive assistant whom Heupel hadn’t hired to a previous staff.

Mack, a Memphis native, was a four-year head coach at North Carolina Central, a Football Championship Subdivision school, before serving four years as Rice’s offensive coordinator.

Mack said Heupel contacted him about joining Tennessee's staff in part because of his recruiting ties to the region.

“He was looking for a person with a diverse background, and my background has been in a pro-style system, (and) it’s been in a spread system,” Mack said. “And, also, great ties to the state in recruiting, and not only just the state recruiting, also just the southeastern part of the United States in recruiting. That’s where a lot of my connections and a lot of my relationships are built.”

Some insight on Josh Heupel

Elarbee worked under Heupel the past five seasons – first at Missouri, where Heupel was the offensive coordinator, and then at UCF.

So, what’s his read on Heupel?

“He cares about people. He cares about family. And that’s blended with a freaky smart guy,” Elarbee said. “He’s highly intelligent.

"I’ve never been around anybody that was that genuine and that smart at the game of football.”

Kodi Burns sees a young position group

Tennessee’s offense will be fairly inexperienced across the board in 2021. That’s especially true at wide receiver.

Other than senior Velus Jones Jr., much of the top talent is formed by freshmen who got a taste of playing time in 2020 or incoming signees.

“The first impression is, very inexperienced,” wide receivers coach Kodi Burns said of his position group. “Lost a couple of guys the last few years that were very productive. We’re going to be young. Very inexperienced, once again, for this league, but there’s also potential.”

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at blake.toppmeyer@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.