Overview: Probably the most difficult team to figure out in the SEC. Tennessee was expected to run away with the SEC East in 2016, but couldn’t even win 10 games despite a bowl victory. This year, it’s much of the same, but the experience level of the roster just doesn’t support it. This is a team that has question marks in several areas filled by veterans, and more than enough potholes on the depth chart caused by graduation and draft entry. On top of it all, head coach Butch Jones is running out of time.
Projected record: 8-4 (UF, UGA, UA, LSU); 4-4 and 3rd SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 5 (SE, LT, C, RG, TE)
Returning defensive starters: 6 (RDT, MLB, LCB, FS, SS, S)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
QB: Fr DL: Fr
RB: Fr LB: Fr
WR: Av DB: Ex
OL: Fr ST: Vg
Offensive breakdown: Even though Joshua Dobbs had a fine year statistically, putting u p close to 3,800 total yards, Tennessee was never a consistent offensive threat. The Volunteers finished 40th in total offense, 37th in rushing offense and a paltry 62nd in passing offense. Those numbers will flip around a good bit in 2017, because new starter Quinten Dormady is not a dual-threat talent. Once recruited by Alabama, Dormady has decent downfield arm strength, but he’s not a scrambler and he looked unpolished in limited work in 2016. The depth chart is full of talented options who either have no experience, or who haven’t stepped up in practice yet. Jarrett Guarantano is the presumptive backup right now; unlike Dormady, he does have runner’s legs but is a freshman. This is quietly one of the worst QB situations in the conference until proven otherwise.
The running back spot is a source of huge concern. John Kelly is awful pedestrian for a starting running back on a contender, and his backup, Carlin Fils-Aime, is limited. One of two true freshmen, either Ty Chandler or Trey Coleman, is going to have to play a lot, and do it early in the year. Chandler probably has the highest ceiling of any UT back, but like Fils-Aime, size is a factor. That’s not such a concern in Tennessee’s full-on spread offense, but it also isn’t optimal. Depth concerns continue in the receiver corps, where Jauan Jennings is the only returning wideout with more than 20 catches a year ago. A lack of development has also hampered this group; neither Jeff George nor Josh Smith, both now seniors, has ever lived up to the hype. Tennessee looked ready to move on to sophomores Tyler Byrd and Marquez Callaway in the spring. True freshman Jacquez Jones, who was expected to help early in the year, was recently lost for the season with a knee injury. At least tight ends Ethan Wolf and Jakob Johnson return. Wolf in particular is being looked at as a potential breakout player.
The offensive line was overhyped in 2016 and could have two freshmen starting in 2017 when all is said and done. Center Coleman Thomas and right guard Jashon Robertson are solid enough, but Tennessee must decide on its tackle lineup and be done with it. Trey Smith, one of the aforementioned freshmen, looks locked in at left guard. This unit suffered too many breakdowns in 2016 and must improve.
Defensive breakdown: Again, failing to live up to expectations is a familiar refrain here. Tennessee operates mostly from a 4-2-5 set now, but the front six couldn’t stop anyone in 2016, as the Vols finished 104th against the run. There is also the loss of DE Derek Barnett to deal with, and all this adds up to a mandate to DE Jonathan Kongbo to start acting like the key he recruit he allegedly was coming out of junior college. Kongbo talked the talk in 2016 but didn’t walk the walk; this year, there is no alternative. He has to produce. Darrell Taylor will start opposite him. The same mandate for Kongbo applies to tackle Kahlil McKenzie, who has failed to live up to hype. With Shy Tuttle’s career status uncertain after two major injuries in 2015 and 2016, McKenzie must produce. Returning starter Kendal Vickers rounds out the group, but there is virtually no depth here. The same can be said at linebacker, where Darrin Kirkland is a familiar face but the rest of the unit needs to upgrade its play. Neither Cortez McDowell nor Quart’e Sapp scare anyone at the other LB position.
The defensive backfield is better than it has shown recently. The injuries that befell the front seven in 2016 probably did more to affect this unit’s play than anything else. The safety group – Todd Kelly Jr., Micah Abernathy, Nigel Warrior and Evan Berry – may be the best in the conference. The question is going to be the corner and nickel positions, where Rashaan Gaulden and Emmanuel Moseley both need to be more consistent. Moseley also was injured in the spring and his status is still somewhat uncertain. A lot will be asked of Justin Martin, a senior who is just now stepping into a starting role. If he can step into the role and succeed, anything is possible for this group.
There should be no drama at the kicking spots. Aaron Medley is a solid kicker, if a bit range-limited. Punter Trevor Daniel is probably as consistent as Alabama’s J.K. Scott but doesn’t quite have Scott’s range. The kick return units could be special.
Overall trend: Sideways. Here’s the operative question: trending from what? Where Tennessee was expected to be by this point, or where it finished in 2016? If the question is relative to long-term expectations, the Vols are certainly down and perhaps headed even further down, thanks to question marks at DL, LB and QB. This is a team built on high-flying offense, emotion and chance-taking, but one that doesn’t have the talent to really pull off the technical end of the deal. And then there’s the elephant in the room – Butch Jones’ job situation – that figures to draw its own questions as the season moves along. Another blowout loss to Alabama could be the trigger that ends speculation there, at least.
Proceed to 2017 Vanderbilt Preview