Can Josh Heupel mirror Sam Pittman?
By: Dallas Bowlin
(Junior Staff Writer)
All Vol Call in Show
When Arkansas announced the hiring of head coach Sam Pittman, the reaction from the Arkansas fans was pretty lukewarm to say the least. However, if you ask those same fans their opinion of Pittman now, I’m sure you’d get a much different answer. Likewise, when Tennessee announced the hiring of head coach Josh Heupel the Tennessee faithful were also underwhelmed. Flash forward to modern day: despite coming off the heels of a 38-14 loss in the Swamp, the Vols may have the blueprints necessary to become successful once again, and all they have to do is look 708 miles to the west in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
So, just what has Sam Pittman done to take a 2-9 2019 Razorback squad to being ranked as the eighth best team in the country in 2021, and so-far-undefeated four games into the season? I don’t think you can point to just one aspect of their team and say “that’s how you reach success”, it’s a combination of many smart moves.
Pittman went to the transfer portal to get some solid players who have experience in Division I football that didn’t reach their full potential at their last stop. One clear example of this is Tre Williams, an edge rusher who transferred from Missouri to play for Pittman. Williams made his presence known against the Aggies, getting pressure and disrupting things in the A&M backfield, helping to slow down an explosive offense. Heupel has shown that he understands the importance of the transfer portal, getting a few players himself in guys like Joe Milton, Javontae Payton, and Juwan Mitchell who all three have made contributions on the field so far this season.
Being able to convince players to buy-in to what is being taught is something Pittman has also used to his advantage. It’s simple, if your players like you and believe in you, they’ll want to win for you. Running back Trelon Smith said “The direction we’re going -- it’s going to be a beautiful thing once you guys see it.” and maybe we are starting to see it. Seeing the events like dodgeball, kick ball, and crawfish boils that Tennessee was doing as a team this past offseason, it is clear to see that Heupel understands how important getting players to like, and buy into him is.
Surrounding yourself with good coaches is never a bad thing. It allows the position coaches and coordinators to do their jobs while the head coach focuses on his duties, instead of having to meddle and concern himself with duties that the other coaches are supposed to have. Pittman clearly understands this. His staff hires have been magnificent so far. He hired offensive mastermind Kendall Briles to run his offense, and a tough-nosed defensive-minded Barry Odom to run his defense. So far, those hires are proving to be home runs. It may be too early to tell as far as Heupel’s hires, but so far, defensive coordinator Tim Banks has led a Tennessee defense that has been a surprisingly strong unit. As far as the offensive coaches, that is when things become a little murky. Kodi Burns was brought on as the receivers coach, and though they have been able to get open, they have been plagued with dropped passes. Alex Golesh was brought on as the offensive coordinator, and that’s a hire that I'm not sure will ever be able to prove its effectiveness, due to Heupel mostly calling plays.
So, looking at things, it seems that Josh Heupel has followed the path that Sam Pittman has taken, and that’s obviously a good sign. I’m not saying to expect Tennessee to be a top-ten team next year, because that’s most likely not going to happen; It will take time. While the two situations between Tennessee and Arkansas have similarities, they also have differences that Heupel will have to maneuver through. So, Tennessee fans may want to pay close attention to Pittman and Arkansas, and hope for their success, because it could also provide a blueprint for Tennessee’s success.