It comes as no surprise that the 2019 Tennessee Volunteers need to upgrade several facets of their repertoire in order to expand on the foundation set in Jeremy Pruitt’s first year on Rocky Top.
The 2018 campaign saw many expected holes with a gap in production and experience. There were also a few bright spots, with upsets over two ranked opponents in Kentucky and Auburn. Nonetheless, Pruitt will be tasked with helping the program avoid a losing season for the third consecutive year. The only other time that such a streak has occurred was at the dawn of this decade. To get out of the rut, many players will have to take a leap forward. The good news for the Vols is that there are capable options available. Here some key areas that need mending and players that can help contribute to a winning season:
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. I bet nobody is shocked by this take. Yet, to put your best foot forward there has to be a starting point and Pruitt, along with strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald, have done a commendable at emphasizing size, strength and health with the big guys up front. The attempted reconstruction has been well received for a program that has seen massive deconstruction and deprivation of a group that was once deemed an annual stalwart in the SEC.
Offensive line coach Will Friend admits the reality of the task at hand: “A year ago, we were just trying to find five guys that could go out there. We will play a lot of people this year,” Friend said.
With Trey Smith’s health in question, the offensive front will have to rely on a concerted effort, considering the two players with the highest potential have yet to play a down of college football.
Pruitt stated that “several have put a couple of good practices together,” and that the team is “looking for consistency from the entire group.”
Look for freshmen Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris to contribute along with veterans Jamir Johnson and Brandon Kennedy. Junior Ryan Johnson and sophomore Jerome Carvin will also be in the mix to see the ample playing time.
The group was outside the top-100 in several statistical categories last year. The most alarming may be their ranking when it comes to stuff rate, where Tennessee was dead last. Stuff rate is simply a percentage of carries by a running back that is stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Vols’ mark was an astounding 32.6 percent.
If the Vols are able to establish consistency early on in games from the offensive line, a positive difference in production might ensue. A lack of push up front made Tennessee one-dimensional and predictable early in games. The forgettable first play of 2018 was a sign of things to come for the entire year on the offensive side of the ball. Yet, the Vols were able to grind out five wins, including the aforementioned upsets.
There could be more surprise victories in store in 2019 if Tennessee can jump on its opponents and avoid early disruption in execution. Minus the victories against G5 opponents Charlotte, UTEP and ETSU, the Vols were outscored 85-10 in the first quarter last season. They averaged 2.7 points in the opening segment of all their contests, good for 125th nationally out of 130 FBS teams.
The only games in which Tennessee won the first quarter against Power Five competition were against South Carolina and Kentucky.
Prevalent Passing Game
Due to the condition of the offensive line, the offense in 2018 was designed to protect the ball and take advantage of matchups on the outside. The most talented unit on the field for the Vols last season was undoubtedly the receiving corps. That won’t change as a veteran group of gifted receivers return.
Everyone is well acquainted with seniors Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway. Both have been, and will be, reliable targets, especially in goal-to-go situations or on third-down.
But the Vols’ most dynamic weapon in the group may be sophomore Josh Palmer. He has certainly garnered the praise of his position coach, Tee Martin. “The guy who I’m really excited about is Josh Palmer. He had a really good spring,” Martin said. “He was a consistent performer and he made big plays for us and that is where we are going to need him,” he added.
The WR ended his freshman campaign with 23 receptions for 483 yards. His mark of 21.04 YPC was best on the team (aside from Austin Pope who caught one pass for 51 yards, but we will forget about that play). If he can build off of his production last season and this past spring, the product of St. Thomas Aquinas (FL) will be on a fast track to success.
If Tennessee picks up tempo and gives the receivers more chances, Palmer will feast. Look for him to move the sticks as well as bust coverages consistently. Last year, Tennessee averaged 25.5 pass attempts per game, good for 125th in FBS. That rate may not have been alarming 20 years ago, but in today’s college football, tempo and opportunity is of the essence.
Perhaps redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano will see an uptick in pass attempts. His impressive 62.2 completion percentage in 2018 indicates extreme accuracy with a restricted sample size. A breakout year may be on the horizon for the incumbent leader, especially if the offensive line improves. Look for Guarantano to eclipse 2,000 yards passing, comfortably. A mark of 2,500 with 20 touchdowns to boot would send this offense to another level: one that can find consistent success in SEC play.
According to Martin, the product out of Lodi, N.J. doesn’t lack for poise. “He has built a chemistry with the (wide receivers) and his leadership. . .the leadership qualities and the chemistry, those things can’t be underestimated,” Martin said.
The absence of a veteran defensive front may prevent the defense from having a special year. The injury to Emmit Gooden and the potential absence of Aubrey Solomon leave this group as one of the most inexperienced units in the country.
One player that may flourish with the the opportunity is defensive tackle Darel Middleton. The Knoxville native went the JUCO route before landing back in his hometown. The last time he played football in the area, he imposed a threat as a receiving target on offense. Middleton has since put on massive pounds, but is still quick on his feet. He could be a mainstay in Pruitt’s 3-4 scheme as the nose of the front. The DT now weighs over 300 pounds to go along with his 6’7″ frame.
The Vols return senior OLB Darrell Taylor. The edge-rusher converted to his current position last year and excelled at getting to the quarterback in select games. The problem with Taylor was consistency when it came to applying pressure. Seven of his eight sacks came in two games. The senior has 72.5 tackles, 16.5 TFLs and 11 sacks during his career.
Look for Deandre Johnson to see a breakout year, much like Taylor’s of 2018, as he lines up opposite on the edge. Johnson has 17 tackles, five TFLs and three sacks. He has also recorded two forced fumbles. This tandem, along with a solid interior backfield, headlined by senior Daniel Bituli and darling freshmen, will be the force behind any kind of pressure the defense is able to create.
Much like the receivers, the Vols’ secondary is the most prepared on the defensive side of the ball. The only difference being the secondary corps is relatively young. Thanks to the contribution from freshmen Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson in 2018, they are now young AND experienced in the most conceivable form.
Thompson graded as the highest out of any freshman DB in the country last season, according to Pro Football Focus. His grade of 81.8 made him the only player in that category to break 80. Taylor graded a 74.2, three spots down from his teammate.
The problem for this unit last season was their inability to create turnovers or get stops on a consistent basis. The former is more of the bear here. In 2018, Tennessee’s defensive front caught more interceptions (six) than the secondary (five). In fact, only two players from that unit, Thompson and now-graduated Marquill Osborne, recorded a pick. The team as a whole ranked 104th in takeaways per game.
Perhaps the player with the most to gain is Taylor. Look for opposing offenses to key in on Taylor in lieu of Thompson’s brilliance. Taylor has two pass deflections and zero interceptions in his young career. However, his 40 tackles and two forced fumbles indicate he has a nose for the ball. A sophomore leap for the Tennessee native would mean massive gains for the defense. It’s rare to find two shut-down corners outside of Tuscaloosa, Ala. and Baton Rouge, La., but the Vols may be in position to lay stake to that claim in 2019.
While many youngsters gained valuable experience in 2018, there are still holes to fill. The DL is a prime example of that. Pitted against the challenge of getting inexperienced players to thrive, defensive line coach Tracy Rocker is trying to implement some advice he once received from a Tennessee legend. “One thing I learned that Reggie White said a long time ago when I met him. . .you got to tell them to act like you’re older and not play like a freshmen. . .that’s part of it. Getting them to play older, play older, and mature and grow up faster,” Rocker said.
If Rocker’s unit, and the rest of the team, can expedite the process of expanding their football acumen. The thought of keeping a daunting streak alive will be put to bed because the volume of talent has certainly grown.