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FOLLOW THE LEADER: How Josh Heupel has set the precedent for CFB offenses

By: Trevor Shelby

Senior Staff Writer, Junior Editor, Co-Host

The All Vol Call in Show


Photo | On3

Points have not been hard to come by since Josh Heupel took over as Tennessee’s head coach in 2021. His high-octane offense has set multiple records and led to historic wins in 2022. As the 2023 season approaches, we will take a deeper look at the ins and outs of Heupel’s scheme. This series will start with his background and philosophy, move on to plays and concepts, and then analyze specific players and their respective roles.

Coach Heupel’s philosophy begins with his experiences as a quarterback at Oklahoma. Having played for Mike Leach in the Air Raid offense, he is no stranger to innovation. He stayed on at OU as an assistant coach for the better part of his early career until he was fired in 2014. During his time in the Big 12, Heupel bore witness to Art Briles and his offenses at Baylor. A successful high school coach in Texas, Briles joined the college ranks as an assistant under Leach at Texas Tech. He then took the head job at Houston before matriculating to Baylor. Briles and the Bears went on a tear in the mid 2010s, which resulted in unprecedented success for the program. Robert Griffin III won a Heisman Trophy and was selected #1 overall in the 2012 NFL Draft. Bryce Petty led BU to consecutive Big 12 Championships in 2013 and 2014. If you remember those Baylor teams, they were good for 40 points a game at a minimum. The Bears averaged 52.4 points a game in 2013, 48.2 in 2014, and 48.1 in 2015. They used a fast-paced spread offense to run roughshod over the conference before Briles’ dismissal in 2015.

With football being the copycat sport that it is, coaches all over the country took note. In Heupel’s case, he got by with a little help from his friends. After his pro career, he returned to his alma mater as a graduate assistant in 2004. Jeff Lebby was a student assistant at Oklahoma from 2002 to 2006. He is also Art Briles’ son-in-law, which may have led to some chalk talk at a family gathering or two. Lebby cut his teeth under Briles, taking on multiple roles at Baylor from 2008 to 2016. He later went on to serve as Heupel’s offensive coordinator at UCF. Joe Jon Finley overlapped with both Heupel and Lebby as a player at OU from 2004 to 2008. He returned to Norman as a GA from 2012 to 2014, then moved on to Baylor for Briles’ final season in 2015. Finley then rejoined Heupel as the tight ends coach at Missouri in 2016. After connecting the dots, it’s easy to see the influence that Baylor and Briles had on Heupel. Keep that in mind as we go along.

Now the question begs, what was Briles doing at Baylor that was so influential? You came to the right place. As it was mentioned before, the Bears utilized a no-huddle, spread offense. At the time, this was considered to be cutting-edge due to the likes of Chip Kelly, Gus Malzahn, Urban Meyer, and Rich Rodriguez. But the way Briles was doing things could not be compared to his peers. He used extreme splits from the wide receivers, a power run game, and a play-action passing attack based off of vertical choice routes to score all those points. Many refer to it as the “veer and shoot”, which combines the wishbone veer and run-and-shoot offenses that proliferated throughout the state of Texas in the 1970s and ‘80s. As a personal preference, I refer to it as the spread-iso, a term coined by sportswriter Ian Boyd. The offense spreads out defenders and isolates weak targets for them to pick on, whether it be in the run or pass game. Heupel began experimenting with concepts seen at Baylor shortly before he was let go from Oklahoma. After one year at Utah State, he brought his version of the offense to the SEC with Mizzou. He parlayed his time in CoMo into his first head coaching position at UCF, where he continued to hone his craft before coming to Knoxville two years ago.

Tennessee’s spread-ISO offense is a unique blend of concepts based on Josh Heupel’s experiences as a player and young coach. As a player under Mike Leach and a peer of two coaches that worked for Art Briles at Baylor, Heupel is no stranger to scoring touchdowns. Despite the optical differences, his philosophy is not far off from the option and pro-style offenses of old. Heupel’s ideal strategy is to attack defenses on the interior by running the football, get playmakers in space by using quick passes and screens, and taking the top off by using vertical choice routes off of play-action. In the next edition, we will talk more about what this high-flying offense looks like on the field.


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