What's Josh Heupel's offense like? Former Missouri players explain what Vols will experience
Emanuel Hall remembers looking across the line of scrimmage during the 2016 and 2017 seasons at Missouri and seeing opposing cornerbacks with their hands on their knees.
They were gassed.
Hall, then a wide receiver in Josh Heupel’s warp-speed offense at Missouri, wasn’t. He was lined up ready to beat the coverage with a downfield route.
“That’s the benefit of it,” Hall said.
Missouri’s offense underwent a significant change during the 2016 offseason after Heupel was hired as offensive coordinator. The Tigers transitioned from a modestly-paced, pro-style system to the fastest-paced offense in the SEC, a system that relied almost exclusively on run-pass option plays.
Tennessee is in for a similar transition this offseason. The Vols will ditch the conservative, slow-paced offense they operated throughout the Jeremy Pruitt era in favor of Heupel’s fastbreak system that’s always on the hunt for big plays.
Former Missouri players who went through the 180-degree change offered this advice to the Vols: Prepare for intense conditioning, an all-business coach, and for everything that happens in the offense to happen quickly.
A quick touchdown or a three-and-out
Missouri ranked 127th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2015 in scoring offense at 13.6 points per game in the final season under coach Gary Pinkel and offensive coordinator Josh Henson.
The Tigers leaned on their defense that season and used a moderate pace to try to shorten games, averaging 2.37 plays per minute of possession. Missouri’s offense scored fewer than 10 points in six games that year.
“We were awful,” Hall said. “We couldn’t move the ball.”
Tennessee’s offense ranked 11th or worse in the SEC in scoring offense in each of the last four seasons. Its fastest tempo during that stretch came in 2020, when the Vols averaged 2.36 plays per minute of possession, still considered a modest pace.
Insert Heupel at Missouri in 2016. The Tigers improved to fifth in the SEC in scoring offense and averaged 3.25 plays per minute of possession.
“I just remember vividly, we had the first scrimmage (in 2016), and maybe we had like two or three touchdowns, and all the coaches were (underwhelmed) like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we just scored two or three times,’ and the players were like erupting on the sideline,” said Vols offensive line coach Glen Elarbee, who worked under Heupel at Missouri, then Central Florida and now at Tennessee.
“You would have thought we’d won the freaking Super Bowl.”
Missouri’s 37.5 points per game in 2017 led the SEC in scoring offense, and the Tigers averaged 2.82 plays per minute of possession.
An offense operating at close to three plays per minute of possession is considered a fast pace. Mississippi ran the most up-tempo system in the SEC in 2020 at 2.86 plays per minute of possession. Arkansas and LSU were the only other SEC schools to average at least 2.5 plays per minute of possession.
Heupel maintained that tempo and high-scoring attack throughout his three seasons as UCF's coach, but it wasn’t as big of a transition for the Knights, who already had been playing in an up-tempo system under predecessor Scott Frost.
When Heupel’s system works, points come in a hurry. When it doesn’t, warp-speed three-and-outs become the norm.
“You either score in a minute, or you’re off the field in 30 seconds,” former Missouri tight end Jason Reese said. “So, it just depends on the game.”
Reese and former Missouri offensive lineman Paul Adams recall vividly a 35-3 loss to Purdue in 2017.
Six of the Tigers’ 13 possessions ended in a punt or turnover without Missouri having gained a first down. Purdue possessed the ball for almost 73% of the game.
“When it gets going, it’s really fun, obviously. You can tell, defenses are tired middle of the third quarter, and you’re just like, ‘Well, I’ve been doing this all season. This is nothing,’” Adams said. “But there’s times where it’s not as fun – when it’s three-and-out and you had the ball for 52 seconds and then your defense is looking at you like, ‘C’mon, what are you all doing?’ "
What traits mark Josh Heupel's offense?
Along with the pace, Heupel’s offenses are known for wide splits by the wide receivers, a vertical passing game and a heavily reliance on RPOs.
His system has been compared to what Art Briles used as Baylor’s coach.
A misconception about Heupel’s system is that it’s a passing frenzy. His offense leans slightly toward the run, although it’s not a smash-mouth, under-center attack.
In an RPO, the quarterback has the option to hand the ball off or fake a handoff and throw a pass. Offensive linemen run block.
At Missouri, Reese said, quarterback Drew Lock would read either the middle linebacker or the safeties to determine as the play unfolds whether to hand the ball off or fake the handoff and throw a pass.
Just how many of Missouri’s plays were RPOs during Heupel’s two seasons as coordinator?
“Almost all of them,” Hall said.
That continued at UCF, which had the 10th-highest rate of RPOs the past two seasons, according to Pro Football Focus.
During Missouri’s first season under Heupel, Lock frequently read only half the field. Wide receivers on the other side of the field became decoys. In his second year within the system, he started making more full-field reads.
Lock led the SEC in passing yards per game and touchdowns in 2017, and wide receivers Hall, J’Mon Moore and Johnathon Johnson each topped 700 receiving yards.
Not only does the quarterback have options within Heupel’s RPOs, but so do the receivers, Reese and Hall said. They’re assigned option routes.
For example, at 12 yards downfield, a receiver could opt for a comeback route, or he could continue downfield on a go route.
That sometimes results in miscommunication between receiver and quarterback, they said.
“Believe it or not, it’s actually the most simple offense you can run,” Hall said. “I will say, the person it’s probably toughest for is the quarterback because of the timing. If the quarterback doesn’t really know what route you’re running, it obviously makes it a little bit tough for him to throw the ball on time. 'Is he doing a comeback or is he going down the field?' If anybody, it can throw the quarterback off.”
Lock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2018 that Heupel’s system sometimes caused “guessing games” between him and the wide receivers and that Missouri's pro-style system in 2018 under coordinator Derek Dooley gave him more comfort.
Nonetheless, a big-armed quarterback combined with speedy receivers can paper over the cracks, Hall said.
Usually, Lock could safely bet that his wide receivers would opt to stretch the field.
“For the receivers, it makes it very, very simple and easy, and guys can just go out there and play free,” Hall said. “At one point, Drew just knew I was always going to run down the field.”
In each of the past five seasons, Heupel’s offenses ranked in the top 30 nationally in pass plays gaining at least 30 yards, according to cfbstats.com.
“He loves those (strong-armed) quarterbacks," Hall said. "Just throw it down the field and let the receiver run up under it. If they can get that going, Tennessee will be really, really good.”
The offense can be stressful for offensive linemen. They don’t often get the opportunity to use pass-blocking stances, because an RPO calls for linemen to run block in case the quarterback hands off.
“It definitely kept our offensive linemen on our toes,” Adams said. “We kind of didn’t know what was happening behind us. We had to block for the run, and if the pass happened you’ve kind of got to adjust.
“You just have to trust the judgment of the quarterback.”
The pace can tax offensive players and offer little time to think, Reese said, and it’s helpful to remember that the opposing defense is just as unsettled – and ideally more.
“I think a lot of plays were just kind of rushed, at times, but that’s his style,” Reese said. “He’s going to go faster than you are on defense, so while you’re trying to sit there and line up, we’re already ready to snap the ball.”
What Josh Heupel was like to play for at Missouri
A perfectionist. Intense. All business.
Those were terms used by Reese, Hall or Adams to describe Heupel.
Reese remembers the offense's first meeting with Heupel after his hire in 2016. Players were eager to hear from the former Oklahoma quarterback who won a national championship and was a Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2000. They were curious about his plans for the offense.
And, for a long time, Heupel just stared at them, Reese recalls.
“That was our introduction meeting,” Reese said.
Unusual, Reese said, but a valuable predictor of what was to come.
“Showing his intensity right off the bat was a sense of relief, because at least you know you’re going to get it straight-up,” Reese said.
Reese credits Heupel as the reason why he earned a shot at making an NFL roster after his senior season.
“I truly believe that, because he came in and changed my – not just mine, the rest of my teammates’ too – entire mentality towards football,” Reese said.
Heupel demanded a high level of performance.
“He’s going to get in your face," Adams said. "I had him as an OC. I’ve heard that he’s a lot different as a head coach, but he’s going to bring it every single day, for sure. I really enjoyed it. There’s times where you want to question him and why we’re doing this, why we’re doing that, but in the grand scheme of things, he definitely knows what he’s doing.”
Hall said he didn’t like Heupel personally, but he respected him and considers him a good coach.
“After being coached by him, what I realized is you don’t have to like the coach to be coached by a good coach,” Hall said. “Sometimes, when you have a coach that’s all business, it puts pressure on you to do things that you maybe weren’t doing before, because you were in a little bit of a comfort zone. I think that he brought a new level of play out of me.”
Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at email@example.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.