Josh Heupel turned around Tennessee in year one. Jeff Lebby looks to do the same for Mississippi State football

Josh Heupel inherited a total rebuild in Knoxville in 2021, but immediately turned things around. Jeff Lebby's Mississippi State football program is in a similar spot in 2024. He'll look to do the same.
Mississippi State Spring Football Game
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Tennessee's 2021 offensive overhaul

The one thing most were confident in Josh Heupel achieving in his first season in Knoxville was improving the offense. That wasn't exactly a high bar to clear. Tennessee had been abysmal offensively in the three prior seasons while Heuepl's UCF teams had put up insane numbers running the Briles offense.

But doing it was going to require flipping the offensive depth chart. Tennessee was losing its top QB, its top-two RBs, and its top WR. They brought back one primary starter along the OL plus three others who'd gotten some starting action in 2020.

Given their ineptitude on that side of the ball, and overhaul wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but they still had to replace a lot. Most of Heupel's contributors for 2021 were either going to be transfers or players who'd previously made smaller impacts.

Interestingly, the Vols didn't go heavy in pursuing offensive portal talent. WR JaVonta Payton was the lone skill player brought-in, and OL Cade Mays and Jeremiah Crawford (JUCO) were the only additions up front.

QB was another story, however, with two part-time P5 starters coming in to compete to lead Heupel's 2021 offense. Hendon Hooker had Joe Milton had similar scouting reports coming in: big-body, strong-arm QBs that were threats on the ground but questionable passers. Hooker was the more polished and accomplished player while Milton had the higher athletic upside.

In terms of returnees, WRs Velus Jones Jr. and Jaylin Hyatt had been solid pass-catchers in 2021, but no other receivers or RBs had made any sort of impact. And as stated, there was some OL experience but not a ton.

Beyond Josh Heupel's own reputation for producing offense, there wasn't much on the Volunteer roster to suggest a huge offensive year. But how did that group do?

Joe Milton won the initial job at QB but was quickly replaced by Hendon Hooker once his inaccuracies proved too costly. Hooker had an outstanding season, completing 68% of his passes for 2,945 yards on 9.7 YPA with 31 TDs and just three INTs. He added another 613 yards and five TDs on the ground.

WR Cedric Tillman went from being an afterthought to leading the team with 64 catches for 1081 yards and 12 TDs. Velus Jones Jr. added 62 for 807 and seven. Payton caught 18 for 413 and six scores.

A three-headed backfield attack of Jabari Small, Tiyon Evans, and Jaylen Wright combined for 1,726 yards and 19 TDs. The Vol OL did have some issues in pass-protection, allowing nearly 3.5 sacks per game (although some of that can be attributed to QBs holding onto the ball too long), but they were excellent at paving the way in the run game.

In all, Tennessee finished 9th nationally with 474.4 YPG and 7th nationally with 39.3 PPG. They averaged 257.1 passing and 217.3 yards rushing per game. Their per game outputs in yardage and points improved by 128.2 and 17.8 respectively from 2020.