That’s not surprising, given Heupel’s background. He spent nearly all of his assistant coaching career as a quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator, and a team’s quarterbacks coach doesn’t often double as its ace recruiter. Heupel’s focus was on recruiting quarterbacks.
As such, Tennessee’s new coach should be better positioned to shape the Vols for quarterback success than Pruitt, who made a mess of the position across three seasons.
“If you’re a Tennessee fan, you feel like this could be the guy to ID and get that position stabilized,” ESPN national recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert told Knox News, in regard to Heupel’s track record as a recruiter.
Heupel, a Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2000 as Oklahoma’s quarterback, was hired by UT on Jan. 27 after going 28-8 in three seasons at Central Florida, which boasted a high-powered offense throughout his tenure.
Pruitt went 16-19 in three seasons as Tennessee’s coach before he was fired for cause on Jan. 18 after a university investigation into allegations of recruiting malfeasance turned up evidence that the university expects will result in several NCAA Level I or II violations.
Investigation aside, Pruitt’s failure to successfully develop quarterbacks ranked as his biggest failure.
Tennessee signed three-star quarterbacks J.T. Shrout and Brian Maurer in Pruitt’s first two signing classes. Neither showed enough consistency in limited opportunities to win the job. Shrout transferred to Colorado after the 2020 season. Maurer started four games as a freshman but did not progress in 2020.
Four-star quarterback Harrison Bailey signed in Pruitt’s 2020 class. He showed poise and accuracy while starting three games as a freshman. Questions linger about whether he can stretch the field.
All the while, Jarrett Guarantano, whom Pruitt inherited, failed to develop.
Heupel, according to 247Sports, was the primary recruiter for six four-star quarterbacks who signed with Oklahoma during his long stint as a Sooners assistant. The prize from that batch was Landry Jones, who threw for 16,646 yards during his OU career.
The February signing period begins Wednesday, but the Vols aren’t expected to make much noise. Heupel won’t need to scramble to add a quarterback to Tennessee’s 2021 recruiting class after four-star Kaidon Salter signed in December and enrolled in January.
While Heupel didn’t recruit Sam Bradford to Oklahoma, he helped develop him as his quarterbacks coach. Bradford won the Heisman Trophy in 2008. Heupel also didn’t recruit Drew Lock, but Lock flourished at Missouri in two seasons with Heupel as his offensive coordinator.
Bradford became the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick in 2010. Lock was a second-round selection in 2019, and Jones went in the fourth round in 2013.
While Heupel was UCF’s coach, the Knights signed three-star quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who led the nation in passing yards per game in 2020.
“He’s done a really nice job in quarterback development, going back to his time in Oklahoma and Missouri,” Haubert said. “He did sign Dillon Gabriel in that ’19 class, who has turned out to be an outstanding quarterback for them at Central Florida. I love the quarterback that they signed in the ’21 class, (three-star) Mikey Keene.
“So, I think he’s got a good eye for quarterbacks, and obviously that has been a problem area for Tennessee in recent years. I think there’s some positive there.”
Heupel inherits the deepest quarterback competition Tennessee has enjoyed in several years.
Bailey and Maurer return. Virginia Tech graduate transfer Hendon Hooker, a 15-game career starter, joined the fold in January. And Salter will add a layer of intrigue to spring practice after a standout prep career at Cedar Hill High School in Texas.
Heupel runs a warp-speed offense based on rhythm and timing, and Haubert expects that transition benefit Salter and Maurer. Both are mobile quarterbacks, like Gabriel. UCF recruited Maurer while Heupel was its coach.
Haubert dubbed Salter the “best fit” for Heupel’s offense among the quarterbacks he inherits.
“(Salter) may actually be the guy now,” Haubert said. “They may actually have done him a big favor. He may be the guy in probably the best position to kind of adapt to the style and the success that Heupel has had.”
So, for all the ways Pruitt bungled Tennessee’s quarterback competition throughout three seasons, he left behind a good parting gift.
The position should be better cared for with Heupel at the reins.
Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake’s subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.