Projected record: 6-6 (UGA, AU, UA, USC, UK, VU); 2-6 and 7th SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 3 (FL, WR, LT)
Returning defensive starters: 6 (LDE, JLB, WLB, MLB, SS, FS)
Returning specialists: 0
QB: Av DL: Fr
RB: Av LB: Av
WR: Av DB: Av
OL: Pr ST: Fr
Overview: It’s a new day in Knoxville as Jeremy Pruitt takes over as head coach, and if he’s anywhere near the emerging talent many believe him to be, the Vols just got better no matter how many players they lose from last year’s squad. Tennessee will refocus on defense and a physical offensive philosophy, getting away from Butch Davis’ soft spread approach. The real question is how far the defense will carry them.
Offensive breakdown: Questions abound on this side of the ball, and it’s not just about the quarterback position. We’ll start there, though, because if Keller Chryst can replicate his junior year at Stanford, Tennessee has very little to worry about. Chryst is a big, physical presence in the pocket, but isn’t much of a running threat. Backup Jarrett Guarantano, however, is. Guarantano looked badly overmatched toward the end of the 2017 season but had a strong spring, to the extent that Chryst, considered by many as a shoo-in for the job at one point, might have transferred just to be someone’s backup. But with Tennessee’s offensive line in a sorry state, both quarterbacks might be needed in the end.
The Tennessee OL basically comes down to Trey Smith starting somewhere, and a host of no-names starting elsewhere. Smith has been penciled in as the left tackle ever since Pruitt took over, but medical issues have gotten in the way of his development and his best position is probably inside, anyway. It would be a lot easier to move him around if Drew Richmond hadn’t been a bust up to this point, but Richmond came out of the spring anchoring the second team despite depth concerns everywhere else. The other name recognizable to Alabama fans is Brandon Kennedy, the former Tider who is now competing at center with Ryan Johnson. Given Johnson’s struggles in the spring, seeing Kennedy take over would not be a surprise. The rest of the line probably wouldn’t start on any other SEC team, and there is special concern at right tackle, where Marcus Tatum alternatively looks like a raw talent, or a bust.
With the OL in rebuilding mode, it’s going to be hard to transition to a more physical running style. Ty Chandler, who was John Kelly’s backup last year, led the depth chart coming out of spring, but he’s the smallest of Tennessee’s returning backs. Carlin Fils-Aime, the most productive of those returning, was moved to defensive back in the spring. That leaves another smaller back, Tim Jordan, and a nondescript group of no-name reserves as the other options, but the ace in the hole might be Michigan State transfer Madre London, who has the size UT seems to want in future backs. Chandler has real potential, as does London, but there’s just not enough here.
As with most Tennessee teams, wide receiver won’t be an issue. Jauan Jennings is full-speed again, and Marquez Callaway showed big-play ability even during last year’s debacle. Brandon Johnson is a solid third option in the slot. Latrell Williams and Josh Palmer are both intriguing options. Pruitt must think a lot of this crew, because top recruit Alontae Taylor was sent to the secondary instead of bolstering the receiver corps. The tight end position will go to either Austin Pope, or JUCO transfer Dominick Wood-Anderson, both players who were involved with Alabama at some point or another during their respective recruiting processes. Wood-Anderson was arguably the top JUCO tight end available in the 2017-2018 cycle.
Defensive breakdown: Like most former Nick Saban disciples, Jeremy Pruitt will take a base 3-4 over/under defense with him to his first head coaching gig. Because of the makeup of the Tennessee roster, expect UT to stay in a base 3-man on most snaps. To that end, Shy Tuttle and Alexis Johnson are both capable of being dominant nosetackles, but “capable” implies uneven results so far, and that’s an accurate statement. True freshman Kingston Harris could get an early look. Vol coaches feel comfortable enough about depth here to move Eric Crosby to offensive line to start fall camp, so there’s that. Unfortunately, the defensive end spots aren’t in such good shape. Kyle Phillips has never really lived up to billing, and Jonathan Kongbo was an outright bust in his first year. And this year? Both will get additional responsibilities in this scheme.
Tennessee is hoping the linebacker group can make up the difference. Daniel Bituli and Quart’e Sapp have potential as inside linebackers, and there’s good depth behind them in Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Will Ignont, thanks mostly to many Vol defenders being forced to take snaps last year due to injury. It may be Kirkland who makes this unit go; if he can live up to pre-injury billing, UT may have something going here. Ignont isn’t dynamic enough, but he is steady. The outside linebackers will be converted end Darrell Taylor, who will play the Jack position, and either Austin Smith or Jordan Allen on the other side.
The defensive backfield will take a step back thanks to graduation; the Vols had one of the best pass defenses in the country last year but this cornerback group isn’t going to allow for a repeat. Carlin Fils-Aime has a decent chance of being a starter in his first year as a DB, and true freshman Alontae Taylor could as well. Shawn Shamburger and Baylen Buchanan led those positions after spring practice but neither should feel secure. Maleik Gray is also in the conversation. Even the safety positions are a bit in question. Nigel Warrior probably has one of them nailed down, but the other returning starter, Micah Abernathy, could wind up on the outside looking in. Todd Kelly Jr. and Theo Jackson are both pushing him.
Tennessee is replacing both kickers, with Brent Cimaglia expected to be the placekicker and Paxton Brooks the punter. Brooks, a freshman, is built like former Alabama star J.K. Scott and comes to campus with about the same level of hype. Cimaglia got some work last year while Aaron Medley was out, but the results were fairly nondescript. The Vols have enough athletes to fill out the return and coverage units, but need more discipline.
Overall trend: Neutral. Long-term, the Vols should go on the upswing. But Pruitt comes in not just as a new coach, but one dealing with significant talent losses due to graduation, which could make 2018 doubly difficult. Getting transfers like Brandon Kennedy and Madre London certainly help, but that’s not a long-term solution. The cold fact is, Tennessee is not a national program at the moment, but must become one again due to the modest in-state recruiting pool it is saddled with every year.
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