Projected record: 8-4 (UA, UF, UGA, USC); 4-4 and 4th SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 8 (SE, FL, WR, LG, C, TE, QB, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 6 (JLB, WLB, MLB, RCB, LCB, SS)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)
QB: Av DL: Fr
RB: Av LB: Vg
WR: Vg DB: Vg
OL: Pr ST: Vg
Offense – what’s to like: The experience in the backfield and in the receiver corps could make a lot of teams envious, especially at receiver. Tennessee returns its top three wideouts, and aside from TD production, all of them put up decent figures last year even though QB play wasn’t the best. There’s also plenty of experience at the running back position, although production has been an issue.
The two most important players going forward are both seasoned veterans now: QB Jarrett Guarantano and TE Dominick Wood-Anderson. Jim Chaney is the new offensive coordinator here, and what he likes to do plays directly into the strengths of both players. Guarantano was briefly benched in favor of Keller Chryst last year, and when he came back, he looked like a better player. For all the talk about his shortcomings, Guarantano threw just 3 interceptions in 246 attempts. He also has good athleticism at the position and can escape a sack.
Offense – potential pitfalls: And Guarantano will need his escapability, because the offensive line could be a mess. It’s scary when the best thing going may be a pair of freshmen starters at tackle, but the interior of the Volunteer line is in a state of upheaval. Tennessee ranked just 114th in rushing offense last year, 108th in scoring offense and 122nd in total offense. Much of the reason for that was an OL that couldn’t block a well-coached platoon of tiny-mites.
The other place the Vols are lacking is simply a case of lack of explosiveness. Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan made a lot of tough yards running the ball, but together they totaled just 1,152 yards and 7 touchdowns. Many SEC teams had one player with that amount and backups that totaled nearly as much. Guarantano not only needs to be a bigger downfield threat, he also needs to stay healthy, because Chryst has moved on. Backups J.T. Shrout and Brian Maurer don’t scare anyone.
Defense/special teams – what’s to like: The back seven is as experienced as any in the country and providing some players haven’t been too negatively affected by multiple injuries, Tennessee ought to be tough to score on for most teams. The inside linebacker tandem of Will Ignont and Daniel Bituli are revered for their hard-hitting abilities, although Ignont needs more lateral mobility to be considered among the conference’s elite.
The secondary has plenty of experience among the starters, and Tennessee is excited about the athleticism of the younger safeties. This group ranked 60th in raw pass defense last year, likely due to the ineffectiveness of the defensive front more than its own abilities. Special teams are solid, with PK Brent Cimaglia and P Joe Doyle both coming off strong years.
Defense/special teams – potential pitfalls: The defensive line was already going to be thin before senior NT Emmit Gooden went down early in fall camp. Now it’s an emergency situation. Most of the two-deep figures to be made up of younger players. This is not good news for a unit that ranked a mediocre 52nd in rush defense last year.
The secondary ranked 96th in pass efficiency defense last year, indicating a high frequency of big plays given up. The defensive line figures to take a step backwards, so the pressure is going to be on the secondary to make more plays on its own. The biggest loss on defense was another injury, as LB Darrin Kirkland Jr. was forced to retire from the sport due to numerous injuries suffered during his college career. A general lack of experienced depth at linebacker could prove to be an issue.
Final analysis: There may not be a more dire and desperate situation than the one at Tennessee. Once one of the SEC’s bedrock powers, the Volunteers have fallen into a consistent state of being an also-ran. And perhaps no fan base, short of Alabama’s, is less-equipped to deal with disappointment as are the hardcore Vols. For a fleeting few years, Phil Fulmer had convinced Tennessee that it, and not Alabama, was the SEC’s premier program. Then Alabama hired Nick Saban, and that was that. The 2019 edition of the UT program could begin a slow, deliberate walk back toward contention, but there is no room for any further major injuries, and everything has to go right the first time.
READ MORE: Vanderbilt
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