Is Heupel finally through playing catch-up with the Vols?

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee first-year football coach Josh Heupel finally sounded like someone who wasn't playing catch-up earlier this week when he discussed the 2023 and 2024 recruiting classes.

Is Josh Heupel all caught up?

Life has been one continuous chase for the first-year football coach of the Tennessee Volunteers, who was hired in late January amid a university investigation into rules violations that resulted in the firing of predecessor Jeremy Pruitt. A 7-5 regular season with a Dec. 30 date against Purdue in the Music City Bowl certainly exceeded expectations, as did Wednesday's top-15 national class of early signees.

Heupel hasn't been overly specific when fielding questions about whether the program is on or ahead of schedule, instead sticking to the blanket goal of his Vols becoming as good as possible as quickly as possible. Yet during Wednesday afternoon's news conference to address the 20 new signees, he seemed more than giddy when asked about turning the recruiting page.

"The '23 and '24 classes we've already been on," Heupel said. "You've had those kids to campuses, and you've had them to games. That is what's unique about college football compared to 20 years ago - you're recruiting multiple classes at a time.

"Those players are guys we've had on the phone each week during the course of the season, and you're going to continue to recruit those guys."

Of course, having to play catch-up and rebuilding a program are two very different objectives. Significant construction still needs to occur to get Tennessee back to the level of its 15-year run from 1985 to 1999, when the Vols competed in seven major bowl games and won five Southeastern Conference championships and one national title.

Recruiting obviously will have to play a major role in any continued ascension under Heupel, and one blueprint for success would be improving things within the state while maintaining status quo in Georgia. A lot has been made about the lack of success in the Volunteer State, with Tennessee signing just one - Memphis receiver Cameron Miller - of the state's top-20 prospects, but the Vols signed five of the Peach State's top-30 recruits - Tifton defensive lineman Tyre West (No. 12), Atlanta offensive lineman Addison Nichols (No. 13), Dallas running back Justin Williams (No. 26), Kennesaw defensive end Joshua Josephs (No. 28) and Powder Springs receiver Kaleb Webb (No. 29).

The state of Tennessee has eight four-star recruits for the 2023 cycle - Murfreesboro Riverdale edge rusher Caleb Herring, Thompson's Station tight end Ty Lockwood, Powell receiver Adarius Redmond, Paris interior offensive lineman Luke Brown, Ensworth receiver Shamar Porter, Murfreesboro Blackman receiver Justin Brown, Baylor School interior offensive lineman Brycen Sanders and Ravenwood quarterback Chris Parson.

Lockwood is committed to Ohio State and Parson to Florida State, but Herring is the younger brother of recent Vols linebacker signee Elijah Herring.

Billboards arrive

Digital billboards recognizing Tennessee's 20 early signees will be on display in Atlanta, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis through next Wednesday.

There are three locations in Chattanooga - on the west side of I-75 just past Exit 1, on I-24 just prior to the Atlanta/Knoxville split to I-75, and on I-24 near the Market Street exit.

Nothing is given

Heupel admitted that his promises on the recruiting trail tend to center on the opportunities at Tennessee both on and off the field.

"If you're promising a kid that he's going to be your starter - if I'm a recruit, I'm going to be on the lookout," Heupel said. "I'm going to be thinking, 'What did he promise the guy in front of me, and what's he going to promise the guy behind me?' We talk about the ability to compete and earn the opportunity to play on this field.

"You've got to have great competitors, and if you've got guys who want something given to them, their ability to strain, fight and compete may not be there."

Vols pair honored

Senior punter Paxton Brooks and fifth-year senior defensive tackle Matthew Butler were named Thursday to the Academic All-American team as voted on by the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA).

Brooks completed his undergraduate degree in three years, receiving his bachelor's in kinesiology this past May. He maintained a 3.92 undergraduate grade point average and is pursuing a master's in kinesiology with a biomechanics concentration.

Butler earned his bachelor's degree in political science last December with a 3.63 undergraduate GPA. He is now working to complete his master's in political science and has a 3.70 GPA in grad school.

Entering the Music City Bowl, Brooks is third in the SEC with a 44.15-yard average, while Butler has amassed 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks this season.

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524.