Heupel says new Vols ‘understand the trajectory’ of program

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel poses with 18 newcomers after Wednesday’s practice.

The NCAA implemented an early signing period for college football prospects in 2017.

Wednesday marked just the second one for Josh Heupel as Tennessee's coach, but he made the most of it. On the heels of a 10-2 regular season that has warranted a trip to the Orange Bowl, the Volunteers signed 29 players, including 24 from the high-school ranks.

Before Heupel's arrival in January 2021, the program was imploding from a win-loss standpoint and resided under the cloud of an NCAA investigation.

"In year one, there was a lot of outside noise that we couldn't control," Heupel said Wednesday afternoon in a news conference. "You're trying to talk about what you're going to do, and then you have proof of the growth of the program in year one. You're still speaking to that growth in year two, and a lot of these guys were already on board as this season unfolded. I think they understand the trajectory and where this program is heading.

(READ MORE: Meet the newest Tennessee football signees)

"You can compete for championships and win national individual awards and achieve all your on-field goals right here while you're wearing the 'Power T,' and you get to do it while you're having a heck of a lot of fun competing every day with guys inside of the building. You put those things together, and you've got a really powerful product to go sell."

Tennessee's signees were ranked 10th nationally by 247Sports.com and 11th by Rivals.com as of Wednesday evening. The final tally won't be available until after the traditional signing date of Feb. 1, 2023, but the Vols appear to be headed to their highest-rated crop since 2015.

Four members of Tennessee's class will join the team as FBS transfers, while 23 of the signees will enroll in January and participate in spring practice.

"We were able to go get guys who we think can compete, grow and have an opportunity to play, but they have to earn it, learn it and take it," Heupel said. "In particular, they can help us defensively. Two years ago, we were hit heavy in the portal, so continuing to recruit that defensive side of the ball to add the depth that we need along with the athleticism we want is extremely important."

A majority of Tennessee's newcomers are already participating in on-campus workouts for the Orange Bowl, and that includes all five defensive back signees.

"From day one that they stepped out on the practice field, without intentionally trying to watch them, they would pop out," Heupel said. "You notice their athleticism and their ability to play balls and be in great body position. They're going to continue to grow fundamentally, but as a skill guy coming in on the defensive side of the ball, their ability to blend right into what we're doing has been really impressive from all of those guys.

"If you look at the corner position for us this year and the injuries that we've had and the lack of depth, it will be important for all of those guys to learn quickly and be ready to go compete by the time we hit the grass in spring ball."

Tennessee's biggest success occurred across the defensive front with the signings of Daevin Hobbs, a five-star recruit according to 247Sports, Caleb Herring, the top prospect in Tennessee, and Chandavian Bradley, a top-75 national recruit on the 247Sports composite rankings.

"If you're going to start from scratch and build a program, it starts up front," Heupel said. "We're not starting from scratch, but that's the quickest way to affect the game. Those guys are all high-level athletes. A lot of them play multiple sports. They're explosive. You can see them jump off the floor if they're playing basketball. You see short area quickness. They have great length. They have those physical traits that you're looking for when you design your program.

"These are the measurements and the specifics that you're looking for, and those guys all fit the criteria."

Of course, the star of Wednesday's show was five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava, who committed to the Vols in March. Iamaleava is among the many already practicing in Knoxville.

"He can self-correct and get himself in the position as he's learned what it should feel like in the pocket in a few short days," Heupel said. "He can already start to correct himself and understands when something happens, why it's happening. That's only going to continue to heighten.

"Obviously, the raw skills are there. He's extremely athletic, explosive inside of the pocket and can make plays with his feet. In a short amount of time, we've been able to see those things already."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.