The Tennessee football Volunteers kick off their season against West Virginia in just over three weeks. And not a day too soon. Even coming off of a disappointing season in 2017, fans in Knoxville are still optimistic that the 2018 season will be at least somewhat entertaining. And, as with every year, there are multiple storylines to keep an eye on going into the season.
The JJ Peterson Situation
The crown jewel of Jeremy Pruitt’s first recruiting class, 4-star linebacker JJ Peterson is expected by most to make an immediate impact when he sets foot on campus. However, of late, that “when” has looked more like an “if”.
Overall, the linebacker position group should be fairly solid at the top. The trio of Quart’e Sapp, Daniel Bituli, and Darrin Kirkland Jr. have all proven themselves individually at some point in their careers. If they can stay healthy, the defense might be in good shape. The addition of Peterson can only make an already solid group even better.
But where most commits came to campus either in the spring or summer, Peterson hasn’t even gotten to campus yet, and fall camp has already started. Apparently, it is due to academic issues. It will be worth monitoring how much playing time he gets, if any, early on this season.
The QB Battle
While many assumed that grad transfer Keller Chryst would almost immediately take the starting job, the incumbent starter Jarrett Guarantano has apparently performed well enough in camp to prove that assumption wrong. Guarantano also has the respect and support of the locker room, while Chryst might still be learning the playbook.
Obviously, both will see playing time this season, barring injury. It’s likely that Guarantano will take the first snap of the season in a few weeks against West Virginia. It will be interesting to see, however, who takes the majority of the snaps this season.
Can The Secondary Perform?
Whether it was due to injuries or bad coaching, the whole defense last year was pretty bad. One of the least consistent position groups was the secondary. Throw in the fact that three of the five starters from last season are gone, and the secondary could be one of the biggest hindrances on the team.
There is tons of potential, however. Todd Kelly Jr., Micah Abernathy, and Nigel Warrior have all made plays at safety before, just not necessarily consistently. Cornerback will be a little more questionable, but freshman Alontae Taylor has looked promising in camp and scrimmages as an offensive convert.
All things considered, this coaching staff could potentially pull some diamonds out of the rough in the secondary. Or they could crash and burn against some high flying offenses this season. We’ll have to wait and see.
Will The Offensive Line Consistently Play Well?
The offense from the 2017 team lived and died with the offensive line play. They mostly died, but there were moments of promise.
The return of Trey Smith is great news. The All-SEC talent will no doubt anchor the entire line either from the tackle or guard position. Grad transfer Brandon Kennedy will be a nice addition. Ideally, Drew Richmond will finally live up to his hype as a recruit this season, too. After that, it’s just kind of a soup of players fighting for playing time.
Obviously, any chance of the offense performing well this year will start with offensive line play. Whether they can or not, we’ll see.
Will Leaders Emerge?
One of the biggest issues from the team last year was a lack of leadership among the players. John Kelly was the closest thing to an experienced leader on offense. He’s now gone to the NFL. The defense was a mess for the most part due to injuries, but there is a ton of players coming back that could change that this season.
Obviously, this will be cleared up a little bit based on the captains that are selected when the time comes. Leadership among players could go a long way in determining how far this team goes.
Pruitt’s First Year As Head Coach
Of all the storylines going into this season, this one will probably be resolved much later than the others. Pruitt has never been a head coach before at any level. Obviously that isn’t a knock on his abilities; the guy has five national championships as an assistant.
But the transition between assistant and head coach has gotten the best of others before. And Pruitt didn’t exactly inherit a program ready to make a run for a national championship in his first year. A bowl game should be within reach for this team, but it won’t be easy. Especially for a first time head coach.
Overall, though, the feeling around the program is that the team is trending generally upwards. If the above issues can be resolved with positive results, then the Vols should be in a position to compete for the conference within a couple of years.