Josh Heupel during SC game.jpg

Tennessee Volunteer head coach Josh Heupel during the game against the South Carolina Gamecocks in Neyland Stadium on Saturday Oct. 9, 2021.

Amidst the complexities of Jeremy Pruitt’s firing and Josh Heupel’s hiring as head coach was the eventual drop off between Pruitt’s and Heupel’s recruiting classes.

Stemming from his days at Alabama, Pruitt was a master recruiter, and Tennessee had three top-25 classes in his tenure. When Heupel was hired, he was known more for developing talent rather than recruiting the top players.

Heupel took his first steps to rectify that Wednesday on National Signing Day.

In his first full offseason recruiting cycle, Heupel and the Vols got 20 recruits on National Signing Day, landing at the No. 22 spot (No. 10 in the SEC) on ESPN’s rankings and the No. 14 recruiting class (No. 6 in the SEC) according to 247Sports Composite team rankings.

Tennessee started the day with 17 commitments — including defensive lineman Jordan Phillips, who enrolled at Tennessee Monday — and added three more players before the day’s end.

For Heupel and his vision of the program, everything started with local linebacker prospect Elijah Herring of Riverdale High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Herring was Heupel’s first commitment in the 2022 class on April 14, when he chose the Vols from over a dozen different offers at the time.

Herring’s role was crucial in setting the tone early for Heupel’s class, especially with Heupel having to sell a new culture before he had actually coached in a game.

“Elijah was hugely important to me and to our staff for a lot of different reasons,” Heupel said. “His ability to see through the weeds and trust us early in the process and him being an in-state kid, and how much it meant to him to wear the Power T was hugely important as we kicked off this recruiting cycle as far as getting kids to buy-in and ultimately commit to us."

Herring could make an immediate impact in 2022 in an already thin linebacking corps that lost the likes of Juwan Mitchell midseason. He will have plenty of company on defense, as the Vols’ added nine other defensive players on Wednesday.

Phillips is already in Knoxville and joined in the bowl practice Monday. Tennessee added several prospects in the secondary and at linebacker, but their biggest focus on defense was at the line of scrimmage. Four of 10 defensive players were linemen or edge rushers, highlighted by James Pearce of Julius L. Chambers High School in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Pearce, a four-star edge rusher, had other offers from Georgia and South Carolina, but as a bit of a surprise, signed with Tennessee in the late afternoon.

Two other four-stars, Joshua Josephs and Tyre West, join Pearce on the defensive line. Josephs chose Tennessee over Kentucky and Michigan in late November and stayed committed, while West turned to the Vols after being committed to Georgia for over a year.

Most of Tennessee's major signings were on offense. Leading the way in his offensive class is four-star offensive lineman Addison Nichols of Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross, Georgia — the highest rated player in the Vols’ 2022 class by 247Sports.

Nichols is a member of the ESPN300 — the top-300 prospects in the nation — and is capable of playing both the tackle and guard positions. Nichols chose the Vols in August over 30 different Division I offers. He should help shore up an offensive line that might lose Cade Mays to the NFL Draft.

Heupel also added four talented wide receivers and four-star running back Justin Williams to round out the offensive skill positions, but his last major signing was Tayven Jackson, a four-star quarterback from Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Indiana.

Jackson committed to the Vols in April and is the only quarterback in Tennessee’s 2022 class. With Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton III — Tennessee’s only remaining scholarship quarterbacks — each having a single year of eligibility remaining, Jackson has the potential to be the starting quarterback in a year’s time.

“Two-time state champion,” Heupel said of Jackson. “First of all, comes from an elite program, understands the work habits you have to have on a daily basis to go achieve something individually and collectively as a team. I think he’s just scratching the surface of what he’s going to be as a quarterback.”

The risk with all signees that do not start immediately is that the transfer portal is a quicker option than simply waiting it out. Heupel is cognizant of that fact and the way modern college football works, but his approach to recruiting remains the same.

The core of recruiting never changes. He will continue to build relationships and sell his new culture — as well as success on the field — and the right players will end up in the program.

“The core of how you recruit is not going to change for us here under me,” Heupel said. “I believe in relationships. I think that matters in the short term. And in the long term, the culture that you build is hugely important to me, and you’ve got to add the right pieces. All of those things got to be right, and I believe kids are looking for that as well."

"I believe in building a really strong culture, one players want to be a part of, and in that, you’re going to have the right guys inside of the locker room.”

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