Promoting the preference so far with Heupel’s Vols

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee offensive coordinator Joey Halzle, right, celebrates with quarterbacks Hendon Hooker, left, and Joe Milton III following the 31-14 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee offensive coordinator Joey Halzle, right, celebrates with quarterbacks Hendon Hooker, left, and Joe Milton III following the 31-14 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30.

Promoting from within has been the name of the game for Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel, and those who benefit certainly aren't complaining.

Since the Volunteers capped Heupel's second season with an 11-2 record and a 31-14 downing of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, Joey Halzle has been promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator and Alec Abeln from an offensive analyst to tight ends coach. Heupel made his first replacement hire last March by bumping offensive analyst Kelsey Pope up to receivers coach to fill the void left by Kodi Burns, who became receivers coach of the NFL's New Orleans Saints.

"I think it starts with what Heup expects from the young coaching staff and the support staff on the side," Halzle said Wednesday during his first news conference since being announced as the successor to Alex Golesh, who left in December to become South Florida's head coach. "They're coaches. They know football, and they know how to teach, how to coach and what we do. When he brings people in on the front end, he's not just hiring helping hands.

"He wants to hire people who he sees being able to take that next step in the future. It's not exclusively that way, but I think it's why you've seen it two years in a row."

Abeln (pronounced ABE-lin) was asked Wednesday if Heupel promotes from within to avoid the escaping of any secrets to his success. Tennessee led all Football Bowl Subdivision programs this past season with 525.5 yards and 46.1 points per game.

"I don't know if it's necessarily a secret," Abeln said, "but what we do works."

The Vols will begin their third spring under Heupel on March 20, with the Orange & White spring game set for April 15.

Halzle played quarterback at Oklahoma from 2006-08, when Heupel served as his position coach, so that's how far back their relationship travels. Abeln played on the offensive line and at tight end for Missouri from 2013-17, with Heupel as the offensive coordinator for his final two seasons.

"I vividly remember being 20 years old and he's walking in that team room for the first time," Abeln said. "I remember thinking, 'This dude is different. This dude is a winner.' At that point, we were as bad as it gets offensively — something like 125 out of 128.

"The first question he asked me was how much I weighed, and it wasn't enough."

After his playing days, Abeln followed Heupel to the University of Central Florida, where he worked as an analyst.

"This means the world to me," Abeln said. "Obviously there are a lot of people who would like to be standing here right now, and obviously there are a lot of people who are qualified to be standing here right now. To me, it's the belief that I'm that right guy for a reason."

Halzle said Abeln provided plenty as an analyst, adding, "A lot of our run game this past year had his handprints all over it."

The Orange Bowl was Tennessee's first game under Heupel without Golseh. The Vols faced one of the stronger defenses of their season and were held below average but produced 375 yards behind Joe Milton's 251 passing yards, Jaylen Wright's 89 rushing yards and Squirrel White's 108 receiving yards.

"The Orange Bowl was still us," Halzle said. "That's who we are. We're going to play with tempo. We're going to go vertical on people. We're going to dictate the pace of play and what the defense can and can't do — when they can sub and when they can't.

"One of our biggest adages is that it's really hard to score when you're not trying. We try to score whenever we get it. We're going to attack, and that ain't changing."

Halzle didn't believe there was any drastic adjustment down at the Miami practices or during the bowl game, pointing out a "communal" element to Tennessee's offensive meetings. Recruiting as a coordinator has been the biggest difference, and that's an obvious change for Abeln as well.

Even though spring practice is more than a month away, Halzle is making sure players are already hearing the dominant offseason message.

"The main thing is that these guys understand what we were able to accomplish last year does not just happen because you're here and you were the No. 1 offense in the country," Hazlzle said. "You don't just get to be that the next year. We have to make sure everybody knows the amount of work that went into that and remember the guys who were here who did it.

"We have to go back to square one. Last year's plays have nothing to do with this year's plays."


Ayers returns

Former Vols defensive end Robert Ayers Jr., who starred on Tennessee's last SEC East title team in 2007, has returned to his alma mater as a defensive graduate assistant.

Ayers led the league in 2008 with 15.5 tackles for loss and was the 18th overall pick of the 2009 NFL draft, getting selected by the Denver Broncos. He played five seasons with the Broncos before spending his final five years with the New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions.

In July 2019, Ayers retired with 265 career tackles and 34.5 sacks.

His coaching career began at Knoxville Catholic High School, where he was defensive line coach in 2020 and defensive coordinator in 2021. He spent this past season as defensive coordinator at Oak Ridge High.


Odds and ends

Halzle said there is no "pressing need" to find a third scholarship quarterback following Tayven Jackson's transfer to Indiana. ... Seven former Vols have received invites to the NFL combine: quarterback Hendon Hooker, receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman, offensive tackle Darnell Wright, edge rusher Byron Young, linebacker Jeremy Banks and punter Paxton Brooks. ... Halzle on Oregon transfer receiver Dont'e Thornton: "When he steps out on the field, he may always be the fastest guy on the field."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.