Tennessee football is thinking big again thanks to Josh Heupel

Bryan Lynn/USA TODAY Sports

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Velus Jones Jr., Tennessee's do-it-all wide receiver and return specialist, hopped into an Uber one night this fall.

The driver, at least initially, had no idea who was in the backseat.

The conversation immediately turned to Tennessee football. The Vols had just lost a heartbreaker to nationally ranked Ole Miss and Lane Kiffin, an electric environment at Neyland Stadium marred by a 20-minute stoppage for debris being thrown onto the field. Had a few questionable calls gone the Vols' way that night, they could have been working on a three-game SEC winning streak after scoring 107 points in routs of Missouri and South Carolina the previous two weeks.

"Even though we'd lost to Ole Miss, he just kept talking about how excited he was to watch Tennessee football again and that it hadn't been like that for a long time," Jones said. "You could hear it in his voice, talking about the way the fans checkerboarded Neyland, how we were thriving on offense and the impact Coach Heupel had made in just one year."

Finally, the driver peered into the rearview mirror, and his eyes widened.

"You're Velus Jones, aren't you?" he said.

Jones, the SEC's Co-Special Teams Player of the Year, nodded that he was and flashed a big smile. From there, the conversation shifted into overdrive.

It was a ride that only punctuated for Jones what this season has meant to so many beleaguered Tennessee fans, whose passion for a return to the glory days has boiled over more than once during the past decade-plus as the Vols wandered in football wasteland.

"When I got out of the car, I took a picture with him and everything," Jones said. "He thanked me for helping bring Tennessee football back to life, and I told him there was a lot more life left."

This time a year ago, Tennessee's program might as well have been on life support. The Vols were coming off a 3-7 season, their third losing campaign in four years. An internal investigation was ongoing into alleged NCAA rules violations, the scope of which university chancellor Donde Plowman later referred to as "stunning" and "shocking," and Tennessee was looking for its sixth head coach in 14 seasons after Jeremy Pruitt was fired for cause. Phillip Fulmer retired as athletic director in the wake of it all, and there would end up being 33 scholarship players leaving the program or entering the transfer portal. There was no reason to believe a 7-5 season, which would include Heupel being a finalist for the Steve Spurrier Award as the nation's top first-year coach, was in the immediate future.

"There were so many unknowns and so much noise out there about how bad it was going to be," senior offensive lineman Jerome Carvin said. "It seemed like a different teammate was transferring out every day. We're sitting there saying, 'Should we leave or stick it out?'

"But the guys who decided to stay fell in love with playing for the University of Tennessee again, mainly because Coach Heupel and the rest of the coaches came in and created a culture of trust."

Not to mention a heavy dose of reality.

Josh Heupel's steady demeanor and blend of positivity, consistency and iron-clad accountability has provided a calming effect at a place that has been the antithesis of calm.

"He walked into such a challenging situation, and one of Josh's strengths, having worked with him the last four years, is that he doesn't get flustered," said Tennessee athletic director Danny White, who hired Heupel at UCF and then turned around and hired him again at Tennessee.

"He comes to campus every day the same guy and works his plan. I'm not sure I've ever seen him stressed out. It's pretty amazing how he approaches things."

But as Tennessee defensive line coach Rodney Garner notes, don't let that unassuming persona fool you.

"He's competitive as hell, and when I say competitive, I mean competitive in everything we do," said Garner, one of five on-field assistants Heupel hired with SEC coaching/recruiting experience.

And while Tennessee may be one of the surprises of the SEC, especially given that the program was down to 69 scholarship players at one point this season, Heupel isn't about to celebrate that the Vols have a chance to win more than seven games in a season for only the fourth time in the past 14 years when they face Purdue in Thursday's TransPerfect Music City Bowl (3 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN app).

He made a promise to the players when he took the job that he intends to keep.

"We never put a ceiling on what we could or could not accomplish this year," Heupel told ESPN. "That was a big part of their buying in. These guys were my guys. I chose Tennessee. They chose Tennessee. They didn't necessarily choose me. They were all here before, but that was the common ground.

"Our kids knew we had a chance to win now, and we never veered from that."

Heupel, 43, also knew exactly what he was walking into at Tennessee after leading UCF to a 28-8 record in three seasons. The Vols had gone through far more head football coaches, athletic directors and chancellors/presidents the past decade than they had won key football games. White, Tennessee's fifth different full-time athletic director going back to Mike Hamilton in 2011, said any narrative out there that Heupel was the Vols' fallback choice after several others turned down the job is patently false.

"I cast a wide net and went full circle as I worked through the search, and I kept coming back to Josh and that he was the whole package," White said. "So, yes, we talked to a lot of different people, but to say that Josh took this job because other people didn't want it is not accurate and not really fair to Josh."

Either way, it didn't take White long before he was introduced to the gamut of Vol Twitter -- the passion, the loyalty, the bruised pride and sometimes the venom.

"My first couple of months here, people were angry, frustrated, agitated," White said. "It wasn't everyone, but I do think our fans see a lot of the same things I see after Year 1 -- a really healthy culture, kids who play hard and a coaching staff that's getting the most out of them. We're not as good as we're going to be, but from a hope and positivity standpoint, we've bounced back pretty quickly."

Some of the heaviest lifting is still to come.

Former athletic director Doug Dickey used to say the head coach at Tennessee would always be measured by how he fared against chief rivals Alabama, Florida and Georgia, and that the Vols needed to beat those three teams at least as much as they beat the Vols.

Well, going back to the start of Fulmer's final season in 2008, Tennessee is 4-38 against those three teams. The Vols have now gone five straight seasons in which they've lost to all three teams, 14 of the 15 by double digits, and those 15 losses were by an average margin of 26.5 points per game.

"The thing about this team is that we never quit fighting, never quit competing," Carvin said. "Even when we had a bad quarter or bad half, we came back the next game ready to go and were literally plays away from being a nine-win team. But those are the games and the things that will help us keep growing as a program."

Bringing in (and keeping) elite players will help, too. Carvin will return next season along with quarterback Hendon Hooker and leading receiver Cedric Tillman. All three could have turned pro but elected to stay. Hooker was one of college football's most impactful transfers after coming over from Virginia Tech. He finished the regular season ranked No. 3 nationally in passing efficiency with 26 touchdown passes and just three interceptions, while also rushing for five touchdowns.

The Vols are again actively mining the transfer portal for the 2022 season, and Heupel's first recruiting class earlier this month produced several key additions, particularly on the defensive line. But there's no understating how far behind Tennessee was personnel-wise when Heupel arrived.

As a player, Heupel faced similar challenges. He grew up in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and jokes, "If you pheasant hunt, that's the only reason you go there." His high school basketball team played for a state title, but his high school football team struggled in both his sophomore and junior seasons.

"But my senior season, we were able to flip it and made a deep run in the playoffs," Heupel said.

It was a similar story at Oklahoma when Heupel arrived in 1999, Bob Stoops' first season as coach. The Sooners had suffered through five straight non-winning seasons, and Stoops was OU's fourth head coach in six seasons. But that second season, Heupel was the Heisman Trophy runner-up, and the Sooners won the national title.

"Some of the greatest experiences in my life have all been a part of trying to build something," Heupel said. "It's rare that you get to take over a historic program with all the tools and resources we have here and build it back in a unique way."

Right away, Heupel could sense the skepticism and doubt among the players. He wasn't hired until Jan. 27, only a week after White was hired as athletic director, and the team -- at least what was left of it after the mass exodus -- was already participating in offseason workouts.

"We didn't know what to expect," Jones said. "Football hadn't been a lot of fun for any of us."

Heupel's first meeting with the players lasted about an hour and a half. He introduced himself, went over his core values, and most of the rest of the time was an open dialogue.

More than anything else, those in the room wanted accountability, which players and coaches said had been sorely lacking within the program.

"Before Coach Heupel got here, guys were ready to leave this place and pretty much did what they wanted to," Carvin said. "I mean, after practice, they'd get up out of here and would be gone. Now, guys want to stay, watch film and just hang out. It's a different vibe, and guys know what the expectations are on and off the field."

Garner, who's in his second stint at Tennessee, has also coached at Georgia and Auburn in the SEC. He said it was obvious that the players were looking for direction.

"In the first two weeks, I had more misses -- missed meetings, late to meetings, missed class sessions -- than I did in my previous 31 years," Garner said. "[Heupel] set the tone and let it be known that everything matters. We weren't going to be a bunch of individuals."

Nothing was too trivial, whether it was eating all three meals in the football complex or making a genuine effort to get to know all your teammates and not just the guys in your position group.

"The habits that you have outside of the game ... they matter inside the game, too, and I think that's what our kids have learned and bought into," Heupel said. "That was a huge part of the change you've seen in Tennessee football."

The Vols didn't feast on a cushy schedule in Heupel's first season. They faced five of the top 22 teams -- and four of the top 12 -- in the College Football Playoff committee's final rankings. They also faced three quarterbacks who finished first, third and seventh, respectively, in the Heisman Trophy voting in Alabama's Bryce Young, Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett and Ole Miss' Matt Corral.

Heading into the bowl game, Tennessee is 19 points away from setting the school record for most points in a season (484), which was established in 1993 during Fulmer's first full season. The Vols have scored 45 or more points in six of their 12 games, and their 466 points are the third most in school history. That's after scoring 215 in 2020, 314 in 2019, 273 in 2018 and 238 in 2017.

"I know this: A lot of guys are going to want to play in this style of offense and play for a coach who believes in you the way coach Heupel does," said Jones, who started his career at USC before transferring to Tennessee.

One of the next steps will be recruiting the state of Tennessee more successfully. The Vols signed just one of the top 15 in-state prospects, according to ESPN's rankings, in the 2022 signing class.

"It was harder in some ways to recruit in state this year than out of state because of the [NCAA] cloud and the noise, and that was perpetuated non-stop," Heupel said. "But we continued to build momentum from the spring to the summer and into early fall and late fall, and we're going to continue to climb."

The university announced in November that it had concluded its year-long internal investigation and would not self-impose a bowl ban, although the university does plan to self-impose other penalties such as a reduction in scholarships and other recruiting restrictions. Sources told ESPN that the university has yet to receive a notice of allegations from the NCAA.

Heupel's defining memory from this first season will be how hard the players played and the way they adapted to his style of tough love.

"The saying we use in the building is that you coach from passion. You don't coach from emotion," Heupel said.

It's an approach that has the Big Orange Nation thirsting for even more next season. Already, billboards reading "#eVOLution22" are popping up in Atlanta, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville.

"These guys started something we can build on," Heupel said.

Jones, a sixth-year senior, won't be around in 2022, but he can't wait to see what comes next.

"This is just the beginning."