Can Josh Heupel recruit? Unsure yet. But he's showing skill as a general manager | Toppmeyer
College football coaches must now double as general managers, mining the NCAA transfer portal – the de facto waiver wire – to address deficiencies.
I’m unsure whether Tennessee coach Josh Heupel will prove an elite recruiter of high school talent – too soon to know – but he’s had an effective initial offseason functioning as a general manager.
The Vols on Thursday gained their seventh transfer pickup – all from Power 5 schools – since spring practice ended by earning the commitment of linebacker William Mohan, a Michigan transfer with four years of eligibility.
Of the SEC’s four first-year coaches, Heupel and South Carolina’s Shane Beamer have tapped into the transfer portal the most.
Heupel’s haul after spring practice came in addition to his February addition of kicker Chase McGrath, a Southern California graduate transfer.
None of the seven transfers Tennessee has added were star players, but they should contribute on a roster that had been sorely depleted by the time Heupel became coach on Jan. 27.
Not only did Heupel rectify depth concerns, he also addressed needs. His most valuable addition was Juwan Mitchell, an inside linebacker who led Texas in tackles last season and projects as a starter in the middle of Tennessee’s defense.
Heupel also walked a perilously thin tightrope by adding a fifth scholarship quarterback in Michigan transfer Joe Milton while not scaring off any of the quarterbacks previously on the roster.
College football is entering an era in which it will feature essentially three signing windows. The December and February signing periods are the established parts of the recruiting calendar. Joining that will be this window between spring practice and summer workouts, which will feature a flurry of activity thanks in part to the new NCAA rule that allows first-time undergraduate transfers immediate eligibility at their new school.
By making it easier than ever for athletes to transfer and play immediately at a new school, coaches must deploy their general manager skills to make sure the transfer portal works to their benefit.
Beamer has secured eight transfers since his hire at South Carolina. His bounty includes wide receiver Ahmarean Brown, who caught 32 passes in two seasons at Georgia Tech, and linebacker Jordan Strachan, who led the nation in sacks last season at Georgia State.
Fellow first-year SEC coach Bryan Harsin has added six transfers at Auburn, highlighted by Northwestern's sacks leader last season, Eku Leota, and former West Virginia starting cornerback Dreshun Miller.
The portal wasn’t always so generous to Tennessee. It stripped the Vols of players like running back Eric Gray, linebacker Henry To’o To’o and offensive tackle Wanya Morris. They would have been cogs around whom Heupel could build. Heupel can’t be blamed for their exits. They entered the portal before his hire.
Even in the transfer era, long-term success likely will stem from recruiting and developing high school talent, with transfers filling in the gaps.
The Vols’ success farming for transfers hasn’t been matched on the recruiting trail.
Tennessee has five commitments to the 2022 class, lagging behind most of their SEC peers.
Four-star quarterback Tayven Jackson is UT’s only pledge who is rated higher than a three-star prospect.
Of course, it’s difficult to recruit with the cloud of an ongoing NCAA investigation hanging over Tennessee’s head, putting a fairer evaluation of this coaching staff’s recruiting ability on hold.
In the meantime, Heupel has his line cast into the portal pond, and he’s getting one bite after another.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.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.