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Heupel Highlights: UT's first-year coach has program high on stat sheet

Josh Heupel’s inaugural regular-season came to a close Saturday as the Volunteers cruised to a 45-21 win over Vanderbilt. It’s safe to say the former UCF boss overachieved, given the circumstances, in Knoxville this season as Tennessee is bowl bound later this year.

But the story is more on how it happened. In short, speed kills. The offensive identity brought to The Hill under Heupel was a breath of fresh air for Vol Fans.

Tennessee’s high-octane system generated the fastest offense in the country at 2.94 plays per minute. Ole Miss was second at 2.85. Every opponent this season had to adjust to the tempo, which allowed the Vols to lead the nation with 14.08 first quarter points on average.

For context, Georgia was second at 12.17.

Heupel and crew coached a unit that led the nation in points per minute at 1.61. Western Kentucky finished second in the category at 1.55 while Ohio State was the closest Power 5 program at 1.53 points per minute.

Tennessee’s 38.8 points per game tally ranks second in modern program history, just behind the 1993 Volunteer squad that averaged 42.8. The offense racked up the highest total yardage per game mark since the 2012 season at 459 yards an outing. That explosive unit nine seasons ago averaged 475.9 yards a game.

At 466 total points, the 2021 Tennessee team ranks third in single-season school history. The offense scored 45 or more points in six of their 12 games, which tied the 1993 team for most 45-point games in a single season.

Heupel also led the all Power 5 first-year head coaches at new programs with seven wins in the regular-season. Shane Beamer and Bryan Harsin finihsed second with 6-6 records, Brett Bielema and Steve Sarkisian third at 5-7 while Lance Leipold and Clark Lea finished with two wins. Jedd Fisch at Arizona concluded the 2021 season with a 1-11 record.

And Tennessee made strides on defense as well, specifically in the backfield, as the Vols finished the regular-season with 94 tackles for loss – just six behind the 2016 Vols. Tim Banks and company have a chance to surpass that total with a solid appearance in a bowl game.

Linebacker Jeremy Banks ranked third in the SEC with 108 tackles in 12 games while safety Jaylen McCollough finished tied for third with three interceptions this fall.

But the offense is the appeal of Tennessee right now and nothing is possible without good quarterback play.

Hendon Hooker wasn’t just good – he was great at times this season. The former Virginia Tech starter finished second in QBR (182.16), completion percentage (68.97) and yards per attempt (9.84) in the SEC. Hooker was fourth in the conference with 26 passing touchdowns and tied for the fewest interceptions thrown in the league with only three, per NCAA requirements.

The dual-threat was a force in the ground game as well, leading the team in rushing yards gained (741) on a team-high 148 attempts. He finished second behind Jabari Small with 561 net rushing yards.

At receiver, Cedric Tillman’s rejuvenated campaign landed him fourth in the league with nine receiving touchdowns and sixth with 931 receiving yards. Velus Jones was tabbed eighth in the SEC with 722 yards receiving while both he and JaVonta Payton tied for seventh in the conference with six receiving touchdowns.

Speaking of Jones, the super senior led the conference in the regular-season with 506 kick return yards and 272 punt return yards. He’s one of only two SEC players to return a kickoff for a touchdown this season.

So, all things considered, not a bad start for Heupel in year one. Of course, the expectation now is to expand on these stats in the coming years with more wins in the process. Not to mention, there’s still a bowl game to play.