Josh Heupel spending spring speeding up Tennessee Vols

Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel

The new operating speed for the Tennessee Volunteers is fast. Not as speedy as new coach Josh Heupel wants once the season starts, but pretty quick for April.

Offensive linemen like Heupel’s new offense because they’re snapping the ball and lining up again fast enough they can see defensive linemen wearing down during drives.

“In the past, SEC teams would rotate a whole new D-line so you’re six plays into a drive and they’re bringing three fresh guys,” offensive lineman Cade Mays said. “In this offense, we don’t give the defense the opportunity to sub and bring in that new package, so you really see them wearing down.”

Wide receivers are lining up wider and loving the chances to make more catches down the field. This is the third offense for senior Cedric Tillman, and he said the schemes of Tyson Helton and Jim Chaney were similar.

“This offense is real different,” Tillman said. “I’m excited for it. I’m adjusting well. I believe we’re still trying to get the details me and my teammates … I think it’s going to be electric this year, and we’re all looking forward to it.”

Tennessee wraps up spring practice Saturday with the Orange & White game and has plenty of room for improvement from last season. The Vols ranked 102nd nationally averaging 346.2 yards a game and 108th in the country scoring only 21.5 points a game while going 3-7 last season.

Heupel, hired Jan. 27 to replace Jeremy Pruitt after he and nine others were fired Jan. 18, went 28-8 at UCF, and his up-tempo, high-powered offense was a big reason why.

UCF ranked second nationally in 2020, averaging 568.1 yards of total offense a game and eighth averaging 42.2 points a game. His offense spreads out, plays fast and attacks defenses.

“In what we do, it is going to be fast, it’s going to be fun,” Heupel said.

Heupel and his coaching staff started introducing this new scheme once hired. They’ve had 15 total practices, including three scrimmages capped by the spring game, to help the Volunteers understand the pace they want.

“We are happy with where we are,” offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said. “I think as a coach you always want to be a step ahead of where you probably are. But we are happy with where we are, and I think we’re going to continue to make strides as we get into summer and fall camp.”

The Vols also will have time this summer and in fall practice to turn what they’ve been learning to muscle memory, allowing them to play even faster.

“Obviously, it’s just tempo and having a really, just a high-powered offense at every level of the game,” offensive lineman Cooper Mays said. “It’s just so intense and fast it’s kind of hard to describe, but you guys will see it on game day.”

That also forces the Vols’ defense to play faster. Defensive line coach Rodney Garner says his linemen are learning how to stay poised, play with confidence and communicate with each other.

“This is definitely going to help us going forward because in this league there are several teams that are doing pace in the hurry-up, no-huddle,” Garner said. “It is definitely going to get us acclimated for the fall.”

Who will run this offense may not be decided until the opener Sept. 4 against Bowling Green.

Hendon Hooker, a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, has the most experience of any quarterback on the roster. He started 15 of 25 games in four seasons at Virginia Tech, throwing for 2,894 yards and 22 touchdowns while running for 1,033 yards and 15 more TDs.

Hooker has rotated with Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer.

Kaidon Salter, the sixth-best dual-threat quarterback in the nation by 247sports composite rankings, is suspended along with linebackers Martavius French and Aaron Willis and defensive lineman Isaac Washington after being arrested on misdemeanor charges.

Heupel says the Vols will keep getting more efficient.

“For being this early in the process, I love where we’re at,” Heupel said.

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.