Most of us are realists who realize that six wins in 2018 is going to be a chore. That doesn’t mean we’re going to be satisfied with it or even give coach Jeremy Pruitt a pass if he coaches the Vols to it, because no matter how much the failures of the past decade-plus want to change us, we still expect the best.
It’s part of the diabolical frustration that comes with being a Vols fan.
We know that it’s going to be hard to get bowl-eligible, but asking for three conference wins [or just two and an upset of West Virginia] shouldn’t be too much. Pruitt is looking for quick-fixes with hopeful plug-and-play transfers like Keller Chryst, Madre London, Kenny George Jr., Jahmir Johnson, Dominick Wood-Anderson and Jordan Allen.
So, if those guys pan out, it’s because Pruitt thinks they can help the Vols get closer to where they want to be.
The question everybody wants to know in the post-Butch Jones, near-apocolyptic roster situation is this: What’s it going to take for Tennessee to be good again in 2018?
First, it depends on your definition of “good.” It would be stunning for the Vols to get to eight regular-season wins, but “good” for this year after ’17’s 4-8 debacle would be a 7-5 regular season. That won’t be “good” deeper into Pruitt’s tenure, but given what he has to work with, it’d be fine in 2018. Probably not good enough for him, and definitely not good enough for us to be pumped, but it would be fine.
Here are five things UT must have happen if it’s going to reach seven [or, heck, even six] wins in 2018.
1. Quarterback play must be much-improved
Jarrett Guarantano got much better this spring. He had a long way to go, but he took some steps forward. The redshirt sophomore from New Jersey is going to have to continue to get better and even thrive in Tyson Helton’s offense if he’s going to be the man in ’18.
Stanford transfer Keller Chryst is coming this summer, and he’ll elevate the play at the position just by being the type of quarterback tailor-made to run a pro-style offense. Is Chryst a star? No. He has accuracy issues and hasn’t proven he can lead a top-shelf team, but neither has Guarantano.
Last year, Tennessee simply didn’t have a player at the position who could take over a game. Now, the Vols must find somebody who can advance the ball downfield, take care of possessions and make all the throws. This has to be a more vertical team if it’s going to keep defenses honest and balance things. Also, with the expected offensive line issues, running the ball against good defenses, at times, will be tough. So, Tennessee has to get the ball in the hands of potential playmakers like Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Brandon Johnson.
That will fall on the shoulders of Guarantano or Chryst. One of them must take a massive step forward if the Vols’ offense is going to be stout. There’s no way around it. This team doesn’t have enough talent on the roster to win with mediocre quarterback play.
That’s a harrowing reality for this team that has yet to prove it has anybody dependable throwing the ball.
2. The rush defense has to see a dramatic turnaround
Tennessee’s rush defense in ’17 — and in Bob Shoop’s entire two-year tenure — was atrocious. It was one of the worst marriages of any team and coach in recent memory. The Vols were dead-last in the SEC a year ago, allowing 251.25 yards per game. They were 126th nationally, which means just four FBS teams were worse.
Quite frankly, the Vols didn’t look much better in the Orange & White Game, either. Shy Tuttle played one of the worst games I’ve ever seen him play in the scrimmage game, and while I hate to call out kids, he’s an upperclassman and cannot be showing up like that. It was really bad. With possible starting inside linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Daniel Bituli out, that unit was bad, too. Quart’e Sapp was ineffective, and Will Ignont — who everybody hoped would take a major step forward this spring — looked like he was playing patty-cake out there. Maybe they’ll get a wake-up call when they review the film. It was bad.
How bad was the rush defense? The first-team defense allowed 140 rushing yards, even against an offensive line that was missing many of its top players.
I don’t know how you improve that rush defense that much, but you can’t do what Tennessee has been doing in the SEC in recent years and have success. Getting Kirkland and Bituli back will help. Getting Darrell Taylor acclimated to a new position will help. Having Tuttle play like he can will help. Kyle Phillips and Jonathan Kongbo need to be much better. Newcomers like JJ Peterson and Kurott Garland could help. Something has to, or it’s going to be another long, awful year.
3. A patchwork offensive line must overachieve
Tennessee got some players back this spring as guys like K’Rojhn Calbert, Chance Hall and Nathan Niehaus did some things in pads. That’s huge for an offensive line that desperately need them all and for them all to surge.
Hall’s knee issues have derailed a once-promising career that began with him having some dominant SEC games as a true freshman. Can he return to that form? If so, it’ll be a MASSIVE help to the exterior of the offensive line. Who knows what Niehaus will give the Vols, but though we don’t know too much about Calbert, he’s big and athletic. He played a lot this spring, and once the redshirt freshman matures, he could be a force. He actually looks like an SEC tackle.
True freshman mid-term enrollee Jerome Carvin definitely looked like he could help the team out right away this spring, and there are other important “musts” like Drew Richmond playing like he was expected to when he came in as a blue-chip prospect, Marcus Tatum being able to put on and add weight and play at a consistent level, and JUCO prospect Johnson to come in and thrive.
But the biggest thing the Vols need — without question — is for superstar sophomore Trey Smith to return.
He’s battling an undisclosed medical issue that kept him out all spring, and though Smith worked on the sideline, his future is very much up-in-the-air. Folks around the program and my sources are optimistic that he’ll be able to play again, but that isn’t a guarantee. If he does, he automatically becomes an anchor that is not only a potential All-SEC player but a possible All-American.
He’s that good, and he can help the Vols right away immensely. First, he’s got to get out there. If he doesn’t, it’s hard to envision this line being SEC-worthy.
4. The Vols simply can’t have injuries
There really aren’t any words to describe the bad luck Tennessee had in the injury department the past couple of years. On one hand, you had to believe players struggled to learn the difference between “hurt” and “injured” during that tenure. It may sound harsh, but it’s true. Some players were accused on being “soft” during that regime, and it manifested itself on the injury report.
But, even in that, I blame Butch.
After all, there were four strength and conditioning coaches in this program in five years. That’s pathetic. It’s a disservice to the kids and the assistant coaches who lost their careers because of coaching malpractice. Different strength coordinators — like coaches — have different philosophies. But when that happens and you’re changing them year after year, you’re screwing around with players’ bodies. That’s what’s been happening in Knoxville.
One year, the Vols may want to get bigger; the next faster. One year, the Vols may want to work agility-heavy, and the next, there would be an emphasis on power-lifting. There’s no consistency, no continuity, and bodies broke down.
That shouldn’t happen under Pruitt, who has been part of the program with the best strength & conditioning program in the nation. UT is paying Craig Fitzgerald a ton of money to make sure that doesn’t happen. This team needs to get healthy after a few offseason surgeries and some clean-up from the Jones tenure.
Once they get there, they need to stay there.
5. They’ve got to find a pair of quality cornerbacks
Let’s close back on the field. That’s where the Vols desperately need to find some cornerbacks who can stick with some of the top receivers in the SEC.
The league is a bit down at pass-catcher in ’18 which helps the Vols, but they’re still going to have to contend with players like Ryan Davis, Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards and the stable of Mizzou receivers.
This spring, junior Baylen Buchanan blossomed into a guy Pruitt believes he can trust. Is he a true No. 1 cornerback? Eh, I wouldn’t go that far. But he took some big steps forward, and he has the NFL pedigree and the potential to be a very solid player. Also, Marquill Osborne’s time to shine is now or never for the Vols.
But while Buchanan could emerge, there are vacancies. And it isn’t like he has a spot locked down. Pruitt is a defensive back guru, and he wants to find some guys back there on which he can depend.
Alontae Taylor is intriguing. Though he wants to play receiver, the top UT prospect and true freshman moved over to the defensive side to get a look and showed instant promise. That’s where Pruitt wanted him when he was with the Crimson Tide, and it’s where UGA wanted him, too. That’ two pretty good defenses that saw massive potential from Taylor at corner, and he showed why quickly. Will he stay there? Could he play on both sides of the ball some? Don’t rule anything out.
Two other names to watch are incoming JUCO transfer Kenneth George Jr., who was a late addition to the class and boasts 6’0″, 200-pound size. There’s also Treon Flowers, from the Atlanta area, who UT beat out Clemson for in one of a few late-signing period victories.
Both of those guys have the potential to step in and be forces in the race to be starting cornerbacks. The opportunity is now here.