Josh Heupel's first Tennessee football staff has Midwest flavor and tentacles nationwide

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

A roundtrip from Josh Heupel’s hometown of Aberdeen, South Dakota, to Knoxville would put you well on your way to an oil change. The cities are separated by 1,300 miles.

Heupel has one of the most visible coaching positions in the South, but he’s a Midwest native whose career has taken him across the country, with stops at Oklahoma, Arizona, Missouri and Central Florida.

The first-year Tennessee football coach's expansive background is reflected in his staff, too.

His 10 assistant coaches hail from nine states throughout the Midwest, South or the West. Running backs coach Jerry Mack, who is from Memphis, is the lone Tennessee native. No one on staff played UT.

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Heupel and seven assistants have made stops at at least one college in the Midwest. There’s Southern representation, too, with several assistants having worked in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama or Florida.

Overall, the geographic map that this coaching staff covers is much broader than that of previous coach Jeremy Pruitt’s inaugural staff.

Pruitt's entire career through his Vols tenure had been contained to the South in a diamond-shaped region extending from Knoxville to the north; Livingston, Alabama, to the west; Tallahassee, Florida, to the south; and Athens, Georgia, to the east. 

In particular, Heupel’s staff has longer tentacles throughout the Midwest. Pruitt’s staff was rooted in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. Not surprisingly, that was reflected on the recruiting trail.

That doesn’t mean Tennessee’s out-of-state recruiting will shift away from Southern states. Georgia, especially, always will be key recruiting ground for the Vols, and defensive line coach Rodney Garner is regarded as a top recruiter of Georgia prospects. 

But this staff’s background could open doors in places like Detroit or Ohio, where the previous staff had no inroad.

Josh Heupel’s staff has a Midwest flair

Vols defensive coordinator Tim Banks was the primary recruiter of eight four-star prospects who either signed with Penn State during Banks’ tenure as co-defensive coordinator or are currently committed to the Nittany Lions. Of those eight, seven are from high schools north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

That reflects Penn State’s geographic recruiting base, but also Banks’ background. He’s a Detroit native who played and coached at Central Michigan. He coached at Bowling Green and Cincinnati in Ohio and was Illinois’ defensive coordinator.

Before joining UT’s staff, Banks’ two seasons as an assistant at Memphis marked his only stop at a school south of Maryland.

Five of the top eight recruits Banks helped Penn State land were from Michigan.

Offensive coordinator Alex Golesh also comes from Midwest roots. He’s a native of Russia but grew up in the U.S., and UT lists Dublin, Ohio, as his hometown.

Aside from a one-year stint as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma State and the 2020 season as Heupel’s offensive coordinator at Central Florida, Golesh’s career has unfolded north of the Mason-Dixon Line. He started as a student assistant at Ohio State, and subsequent coaching stops included Northern Illinois, Toledo, Illinois and Iowa State.

Quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle is a geographic outlier. The long-haired 35-year-old has the look to match his Southern California upbringing. He played at Oklahoma and began his coaching career as an off-the-field staffer there, before following Heupel to Utah State, Missouri and UCF, where he gained his first on-field assistant position.

Don’t worry, this staff has South roots, too

This staff isn’t entirely carved from surfer country or Midwest cornfields, though. It has plenty of Southern flavor.

The 54-year-old Garner has spent his entire career in the three-state region of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. A Leeds, Alabama, native, he coached two stints at Auburn, his alma mater. He also enjoyed a long tenure at Georgia and was a Vols assistant in 1996-97.

Heupel, plus five of his assistants, have experience as SEC assistants.

Garner is among five Vols assistants who have coached in Georgia. Like Garner, defensive backs coach Willie Martinez worked many years on Mark Richt’s staff at Georgia, and special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler also gained experience under Richt at Georgia.

Linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary coached six seasons at Georgia Tech, and offensive line coach Glen Elarbee did a two-year stint at West Georgia.

The state of Florida is another staff hub. Golesh, Elarbee, Halzle and Martinez coached at least one season under Heupel at UCF. Martinez and Jean-Mary are Florida natives. Martinez started his career coaching at Bethune-Cookman, an FCS school in Daytona Beach, and he also coached at multiple high schools in the state. Jean-Mary was South Florida’s defensive coordinator for three seasons.

Auburn also is common ground for Tennessee’s staff. Garner and wide receivers coach Kodi Burns played and coached there, and Martinez also coached at AU.

Jean-Mary and Mack have coached in Alabama, too, at North Alabama and South Alabama, respectively.

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at blake.toppmeyer@knoxnews.com 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.