Josh Heupel is giving Tennessee football a big hug, and that might be what Vols need | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

Spring is a time of optimism, at least for most college football fanbases.

At Tennessee, that'll take more than one Orange & White Game.

Even a charming and entertaining one. Saturday’s offensive fireworks under new coach Josh Heupel might have been empty calories because Tennessee’s defenders were allowing big plays and points. But it surely did Vol Nation some good after a rough few months – heck, years – to see Heupel’s hyped offense roar to life at Neyland Stadium.

His offense looked crisp and fast and dangerous. The quarterbacks mostly looked good running it.  

Tennessee Head Coach Josh Heupel takes the field at the Orange & White spring game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, April 24, 2021.

None of this guarantees that the Vols won’t stink in 2021, but Saturday did offer something this program hasn't had lately.

It was fun.

That’s kind of been the idea from the start with Heupel. He's offering a power-of-positivity approach to a team that could use it right now. With the threat of NCAA sanctions and recent roster attrition, this is very much an ailing program with players in need of confidence and enthusiasm. 

TOPPMEYER:Tennessee football's QBs in better hands with Josh Heupel after Jeremy Pruitt debacle — and spring game proves it

Tennessee football, in essence, needs a big hug.

And that's what Heupel appears to be giving it.

The Heupel way so far has been more about a pat on the back than a kick in the pants. He has tried to not be too harsh with Vols players on the practice field, and he’s instructed assistants to do the same.

"Being able to coach it without being negative in any way,” said offensive coordinator Alex Golesh, “that's been a really, really big challenge from Coach (Heupel) for us. … "That's what you're always fighting, making sure you're coaching really hard, you're coaching details, but you're staying positive."

So Heupel has tried to make this fun. He plays an entertaining brand of football. He has talked a lot about positivity, not just as a preferred way to reach millennial mindsets but as something a rebuilding program needs at this formative stage.

"The message has got to be positive here as we build us all coming together," Heupel said after Saturday's spring game. "It doesn't mean that you're not real with your team. I think that's the exact opposite. Because of those relationships, you get a chance to be really true, really real in what you see and where you need to do. And because of the connection you have with those players, they're going to accept that and understand you have their best interests at heart. That's on the field and off of it as well."

It's too simplistic to envision a college football team singing kumbaya around a campfire, but you get the idea. Tennessee very much has a players' coach in Heupel.

It might work, and it might not. Good coaches can win in different ways. We'll see how it plays out in the coming years.

But for now, I do think it is a smart approach, both with the current team (and keeping additional players out of the transfer portal) and future recruits he'll need. 

Because – and this isn’t a secret – there’s not much attractive about the Vols right now.

Saturday’s SEC Network broadcast was a rare chance to sell Heupel and a new-look offense – when this new staff hasn’t been able to do that face to face. During the opening minutes of that broadcast, recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill commented that “there’s nowhere to go but up,” for Heupel with Tennessee's team. Then the game commentators brought up “the elephant in the room” of potential NCAA sanctions from the end of the Jeremy Pruitt era.

Can’t blame them for going there. They were saying what many were already thinking, and if Heupel is going to have to continue to recruit against such a perception, he might as well make the experience of playing for Tennessee more appealing.

If he can sell little else, at least sell fun.

In this way, the contrast between Heupel and Pruitt couldn’t be more striking.

Such is often the case, though, after a coaching change and a terrible season. A new staff always is initially praised for doing what the old, losing one did not. Remember that Pruitt, for instance, was applauded at one point for instilling the toughness that had been lacking under Butch Jones. Admittedly, I tended to agree with that. So did Phillip Fulmer and many others.

Pruitt embodied it to a fault, too. He’d grab players by the facemask and jersey on the sideline during games. That was a bad look for him, but I have to believe that a sizable percentage of Vols fans liked the fiery stuff – that is, until Pruitt started losing.

Shouldn't be surprising, then, that a coach like Heupel looks pretty good to returning Vols players.

“With the previous staff, it was for me more of a military-style form of practice, if you know what I mean," said linebacker Bryson Eason. "It was very strict. Nothing to the other guys, but with this practice, it's more catered to us and the team and the players. ... The vibe and the environment is just completely different.”

When hardly anything else has worked for Tennessee’s coaches, we’ll see how Heupel does. He’ll continue to need a lot of positivity and a lot of patience.

And so, probably, will everyone who roots for Tennessee football.

Reach Gentry Estes at and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.