Before the signatures began rolling into the Tennessee football offices last week, the Vols received a huge commitment.
But it wasn’t from an incoming recruit. It was from a player already on the roster.
Starting quarterback Hendon Hooker announced he was returning in 2022 to use his final season of eligibility.
“I’m extremely excited,” Hooker says. “I’m ready to lead and lead these new guys coming in. Ready to continue building the culture at Tennessee.”
Hooker’s decision set the stage for a joyful week on Rocky Top. Combined with a solid recruiting class, the Vols kept the upward trajectory of the program’s rebuild on track.
Head coach Josh Heupel’s first full class at UT welcomed 20 recruits during the early signing period. The class was ranked No. 13 by 247Sports, with the February signing period still remaining.
The group is highlighted by four-stars Tyre West of Tifton, Georgia, James Pearce of Charlotte, North Carolina, and running back Justin Williams from Dallas, Georgia.
Pearce, a defensive end, wasn’t expected to sign until February but submitted his paperwork to UT late on signing day.
West, a linebacker who initially committed to Georgia, chose Tennessee over Florida State.
Williams, a running back, chose the Vols over Auburn.
The early class includes four offensive lineman, four defensive lineman, four wide receivers, three defensive backs, two linebackers, two running backs and one quarterback.
“The class as a whole I’m really excited about,’’ Heupel says. “I think we added a lot of athleticism in our skill spots and on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
“Up front, big, long athletes and, defensively, they can rush and affect the passer on the inside and on the edges. On the offensive line, added a lot of size (and) strength. Kids that are extremely bright and very focused. Love this group.”
The day before Heupel secured the class, Hooker provided the Vols with some security and experience behind center by announcing his return.
The senior could have declared for the NFL Draft but wanted to improve his stock from a projected mid-round selection.
Hooker revealed his plans to Heupel as they casually walked off the practice field.
“He said, ‘Let’s go to Atlanta,’” recounts Hooker, referring to the location of the SEC Championship game. “I said, ‘Let’s make it happen.’”
As the Vols (7-5) prepare to play Purdue in the Music City Bowl Dec. 30 in Nashville, Hooker has thrown for 2,567 yards and 26 touchdowns with only three interceptions. He ranks third nationally in passer efficiency while also rushing for 561 yards and five touchdowns.
“In a lot of ways it was an early Christmas present,” adds UT offensive coordinator Alex Golesh of Hooker’s return. “It’s gratifying he wants to be here and lead the offense. So proud of what he’s done and the next step he can take.”
Hooker’s buy-in offers another selling point Heupel and his staff can use with recruits. Heupel equates the last 10 months since being hired as stages of progression.
He had to first establish a relationship without any tangible evidence of what could be done at UT under the new staff. Next, he had to change the culture within the program so current players could help recruit.
“The greatest salesmen of our program are our current players,” Heupel points out. “When recruits come on campus, they have an opportunity to ask real questions and spend time with them. Players don’t lie to players, and I think that showed in our ability to recruit these guys.”
The final piece was showcasing the results on the field throughout the fall with an entertaining offensive style and more wins.
The Vols still have room to improve recruiting, especially locally.
Most programs are guided by the recruiting principle of “building a wall around the state” to keep homegrown talent from fleeing beyond the borders.
But linebacker Elijah Herring out of Riverdale High in Murfreesboro was UT’s only in-state recruit to sign last week.
Heupel hypothesizes that UT’s local recruits have been turned off by the toxicity surrounding the program over the last few years. It’s a perception problem Heupel and his staff are working hard to change.
“In this recruiting cycle, that was maybe the biggest hurdle to overcome,” Heupel says. “The players in this state have heard all the noise. In some ways, I think it was harder in state this year than out of state.”
Heupel credits Herring for being bold enough to take a chance.
“His ability to see through the weeds and trust us early in the process, 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,” Heupel continues. “Him being the first guy was hugely important to us.”
The Vols celebrated their #eVOLution22 signing class with digital billboards in Knoxville, Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis and Atlanta that were on display through Dec. 22.
UT still has a few scholarships available, and will likely use the transfer portal to fill any positions of need. That’s how they got Hooker to join them last season from Virginia Tech.
Hooker had to earn his starting role, and Heupel won’t promise playing time to any newcomers.
He wants competition every day and players who embrace fighting for everything they earn.
The UT coaches say the first full class of recruits embody all the qualities necessary to thrive in their system.
They are confident Tennessee offers everything possible to continue the climb back to respectability and title contention.
“Anything you can and want to do has been done here before. They can see that we are on that trajectory again,” Heupel adds. “I think they believe in the culture that has been built, who and what we are about as a coaching staff.”