SEC experience 'a big part' of Heupel's first defensive staff with Vols

Defensive line coach Rodney Garner of the Tennessee Volunteers speaks during a news conference in the Ray and Lucy Hand Digital Studio in Knoxville. Photo By Caleb Jones/Tennessee Athletics

If Tennessee's new defensive staff under first-year head football coach Josh Heupel looks like a Mark Richt staff of yesteryear at Georgia, that is not by accident.

Three defensive assistants - line coach Rodney Garner, outside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler and secondary coach Willie Martinez - worked under Richt, who compiled a 145-51 record and won two Southeastern Conference championships and five SEC East titles during his 15 seasons in Athens from 2001-15. Garner and Martinez worked together for the first nine years of Richt's run, which yielded league crowns in 2002 and 2005 and a No. 2 finish nationally behind LSU in 2007.

Heupel introduced his defensive staff on a Zoom call Monday, and he quickly pointed out that four of his five hires on that side of the ball arrived in Knoxville with previous SEC experience.

"It was a big part," Heupel said. "As you assemble your 10 assistants collectively and the balance you want to have, having some ties inside this conference and knowing how it operates from the landscape of it was important for me. When you're bringing in together a group of guys, some familiarity with who they are individually and some connections there make the transition into that meeting room easier and the trust factor is really important.

"I think our players see how in sync those guys are and how they operate and communicate as they put in their scheme, and they have some ties into the recruiting world here to our footprint as well."

New linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary was a graduate assistant at South Carolina under Lou Holtz during the 2001-02 seasons, so only coordinator Tim Banks has yet to experience coaching in the SEC.

"It's a whole different deal," said Ekeler, who has the role of special teams coordinator in addition to assisting Jean-Mary with the linebackers. "I've coached in all the Power Five conferences and have been in the SEC a total of five years - three at LSU and two at Georgia - and to have that experience is just different. It's different than the Big 12. It's different than the ACC.

"It's the deep end of the pool."

Garner and Martinez not only possess the nine years of working together in Athens but also have past experience at Tennessee. A quarter century ago, Garner came to Knoxville to coach the tight ends, and he added offensive tackles to his responsibilities during his second season in 1997.

The Volunteers were 21-4 during Garner's first go-around and were the 1997 SEC champions, and Garner laughed Monday when asked whether he or Knoxville had changed most during the lengthy absence.

"We've both changed, but it's good to be back on Rocky Top," Garner said. "It's exciting for me and my family, and it's sort of like life is coming full circle being able to come back here. Obviously we were here in the late 90s, and it's exciting to have the opportunity to be able to get Tennessee back to the elite status that we feel like it belongs to and playing whatever role in being able to contribute to that."

Martinez is the most recent member of Heupel's staff to coach at Tennessee, having guided Vols defensive backs from 2013-16 under Butch Jones. He left for Cincinnati following Tennessee's second consecutive 9-4 season and avoided the 4-8 collapse of 2017.

It's been 20 years since Martinez arrived in the SEC, and he has an entirely different job in this era.

"The speed of the game has changed and the tempo of the game has changed," Martinez said. "That's the first thing that comes to mind. In this league, there is a tremendous amount of great athletic players at each position, and it's the best in the country. The talent is great, but it's the speed and the tempo of the offenses that stands out.

"You have to defend the entire field sideline to sideline, and you often have to play with the same personnel. You used to be able to change your personnel grouping because you had time, but the times have changed and the rules have changed."

Linebacker courting

Two productive linebackers from this past season, Henry To'o To'o and Quavaris Crouch, entered the NCAA transfer portal in January following Jeremy Pruitt's firing but have not announced their plans for 2021.

"We don't have a timeline on those guys," Banks said. "They're not here - obviously at this point - and we're super excited about the guys who are here in this program who are working. We'll figure that out as we go, but right now, we're just concerned with the guys who are here."

Pruitt vs. Ekeler

Ekeler was asked Monday whether him getting into an altercation with Pruitt when they were together on Georgia's defensive staff several years ago was urban legend or legitimate.

"The only thing I'll say about my experience at Georgia is that I worked for Mark Richt, who is an unbelievable guy," Ekeler said. "I really had a great experience working for him. He's an incredible person, and I'm just excited about what we're doing here."

Wishing Steele well

Tennessee's new defensive staff does not include Kevin Steele, who was Auburn's defensive coordinator the past five seasons and was hired as a defensive assistant in January. Steele only worked for seven weeks but will receive nearly $900,000 for doing so.

"Kevin is a great coach and has been inside of this league for a long time, and he obviously has some ties to Tennessee as well," Heupel said. "I wish him nothing but the best as he moves on in his coaching career and in the future. Ultimately, we felt like this was the right collection of talent here to lead our players and help lead this football program."

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524.