Vols' Heupel sees Music City Bowl value in recruiting as well

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee first-year football coach Josh Heupel speaks to his players after Saturday's practice. The Volunteers finished their regular season with a 7-5 record and are turning their attention to the Music City Bowl against Purdue on Dec. 30.

Tennessee first-year football coach Josh Heupel is excited on multiple fronts about the trip at the end of the month to the Music City Bowl.

Just don't expect a breakdown any time soon on the opposing Purdue Boilermakers.

"To be honest, I haven't started down that track too far," Heupel said Saturday during his first news conference since the 45-21 win over Vanderbilt on Nov. 27 concluded a 7-5 regular season for his Volunteers. "There have been enough other things going on."

At the forefront of Heupel's agenda is the early signing period that starts Wednesday. The Vols have 19 public commitments, having collected their 19th nonbinding pledge Friday afternoon from four-star receiver Kaleb Webb out of McEachern High School in the Atlanta suburb of Powder Springs.

When Heupel became Tennessee's coach in late January after the termination of Jeremy Pruitt, he was still four months away from the NCAA lifting the lengthiest dead period in history due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. Now it's a different world, as prospects have attended Saturday games and are also allowed to visit bowl practices.

"That's huge for us," Heupel said. "When we started the recruiting process during COVID, we talked about the things that were going to be inside the building and how we were going to play. This fall, they've gotten a chance to see that. Now they get to see the energy inside our building.

"They get to see a position coach talk and communicate and teach through position drills, and I think it's an awesome time for them to get the real feel inside of our building every single day. I think it will be a huge part of how we finish this recruiting cycle."

Tennessee's class of commitments is currently 16th nationally in the 247Sports.com rankings. Last year's class was ranked as high as No. 2 in the spring of 2020 but wound up 23rd after multiple departures such as linebacker Dylan Brooks, running back Cody Brown and defensive tackle KaTron Evans.

The Vols already have conducted a couple of bowl practices for the Dec. 30 matchup inside Nissan Stadium, and Heupel explained this is a time to reset in terms of getting players healthy and revisiting fundamentals.

"I think the biggest thing with bowl preparation is not getting stale and getting some good-on-good work so that they have an understanding of the tempo and that they're accustomed to it," Heupel said. "You want your players being as fresh as they possibly can mentally and physically when you get to the bowl site and the bowl game."

Purdue finished the regular season 8-4 overall and 6-3 in Big Ten play. The Boilermakers should certainly have Tennessee's attention, given that they defeated No. 2 Iowa 24-7 and No. 3 Michigan State 40-29.

Of course, the Vols should have the crowd advantage in Nashville, which has Heupel pumped as well.

"I think everybody is excited about what the game day environment will be with our fan base," he said. "When the announcement happened, I was on the road with our staff recruiting, but our guys are extremely excited. We were looking forward to and in some ways hoping that would be the destination that we were going to be in.

"For guys around this region, it's an easy trip for the families to come up and share in the experience, and that's not just on game day but the entire week."

photo AP photo by Wade Payne / Alontae Taylor is not joining Tennessee in its preparation for the Music City Bowl, with the senior cornerback from Coffee County instead focusing on getting ready for the Senior Bowl and the NFL draft.

Taylor's decision

Saturday marked the first opportunity Heupel had to address senior cornerback Alontae Taylor's decision to bypass the Music City Bowl in order to focus on the Senior Bowl in early February and the 2022 NFL draft.

"I had an opportunity to sit down with him," Heupel said. "He's very thoughtful, and he took the information and understood potentially where he is slotted and made a good decision for him. You want to be able to give good, concrete information to kids and have them make a really sound decision for themselves, and I feel like Alontae did that.

"We're excited about his future. He's a kid who has been a great leader from the time that he stepped on campus for us. For me, he's been a great resource in just helping build the foundation of Tennessee football."

Heupel said there are other players deciding whether or not to play in Nashville, adding, "Whoever ends up showing up, we're going to be ready to play. We anticipate having a pretty full roster."

Recent eulogy

Heupel took a break last week from the recruiting trail to not only attend but speak at the funeral of former University of Central Florida running back Otis Anderson Jr. Anderson, who rushed for nearly 2,200 yards during his four years with the Knights, was fatally shot by his father in Jacksonville earlier this month when a dispute over a dog bite escalated.

"I didn't know I was going to speak until I almost got to the church," said Heupel, UCF's coach for three seasons before being hired by Tennessee. "To me, it was just important to celebrate a young man's life. You love all your guys, and it's a sudden and tragic loss of life. I just wanted to show support to the family but also to his fellow teammates and brothers.

"Having an opportunity to see some of those guys and share in the grieving process was important for me and my wife. It was a tough day."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.