Josh Heupel has given another clear indication that he is going to build Tennessee football as he sees fit. So far, that’s a good thing.
The coach that has garnered national respect for the Vols has once again hired a coach in his own making to fill a staff vacancy, someone from inside the program that knows what Heupel’s Vols are all about. Former offensive analyst Alec Abeln has been tabbed to take over as Tennessee’s tight ends coach, per a report by Matt Zenitz of ON3 and Adam Sparks of the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Abeln is the second coach this offseason and third since Heupel took over to receive a promotion in response to movement on Tennessee’s staff. He will partially replace Alex Golesh, who was also offensive coordinator for Tennessee football before being hired by South Florida to be the Bulls’ head coach.
Former quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle was elevated to replace Golesh as offensive coordinator. Last year, Heupel promoted Kelsey Pope, another analyst, to replace Kodi Burns as wide receiver coach.
Heupel’s approach is a stark contrast to the most successful coach in the modern era of college football. Alabama coach Nick Saban has a long track record of bringing in coaches with different viewpoints since he hired Lane Kiffin to be the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator in 2014.
The two coaches and their approaches to offensive football at the time were about as opposite as one could imagine. They worked well together, but Heupel doesn’t need to do anything to jazz up his offense like Saban had to do at the time.
Heupel’s offense is of his own creation and was the best in the nation last season by several metrics. He doesn’t need input from a coach that prefers a pro-style attack, the wishbone or any other sort of offense when his is humming along. Bringing a coach in with another offensive mindset could just create a disturbance. The Vols have been there before.
Former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer was on his last leg before the 2008 season when he hired Dave Clawson to be the Vols’ offensive coordinator. The two could not have been more different.
Fulmer believed in fundamental offensive line play. Clawson believed in flip flopping offensive tackles and guards. That was just one case in which the two didn’t agree. Then, when things started going south, there were two cooks in the kitchen. That was two too many.
Heupel is also showing his offensive analysts that there is opportunity at Tennessee and beyond as his coaching tree begins to grow. If coaches believe in Heupel and learn from him, they’ll have chances to move up, either at Tennessee or at another school like Golesh. Abeln is a prime example that being loyal to Heupel can pay off.
As an offensive lineman at Missouri, Abeln played for Heupel when he was an offensive coordinator there. He also coached as a graduate assistant for Heupel when he was the head coach at Central Florida.
Both know each other well. Given Heupel’s successful track record at Tennessee, that should offer some assurance to those that might have wanted a “splash” hire.
Other than being from within the program, there is another common thread among Tennessee’s recent hirings. They’re young, especially Abeln, who is just 27-years-old. Halzle just turned 37-years-old in January, which is incredibly young by SEC coordinator standards. Pope is 30.
Heupel could have certainly gone out and hired an outstanding, proven coach instead of Abeln. Tennessee football has the gravitas to lure most any position coach from any school in the country. But why do that when things are going so well? It would actually be riskier to hire an outsider than to hire an insider who is barely old enough to rent a car.
There may come a time when defenses catch up to Heupel. There may come a time in which rules changes limit his offense and, like Saban, Heupel may have to look elsewhere. However, based on what Heupel has shown to this point, his coaching staff might be close to retirement before he needs to change much of anything with his offense.