Jeremy Pruitt

Post-Spring, 2018 Heavily Dependent on “Ifs” at Two Key Positions, Part I

Coming out of the spring, the 2018 Tennessee football team looks like it certainly has some talent on the roster, but depth at most positions and overall attitude (expecting to win, being willing to compete on every snap, etc.) are the biggest issues.  So in late April when evaluating the team and its prospects for 2018, let me start by stipulating a few things:

  • I do not expect this team to compete for the SEC East Championship in 2018
  • I think a reasonable expectation for Year 1 under Coach Jeremy Pruitt is 6 wins and a bowl game, and given the schedule I think 7 and even 8 wins are not beyond the realm of possibility with some breaks
  • Due to the huge upgrade in coaching; the recruiting pedigree of many of the players on the team; and the simple fact that Pruitt has had a bigtime defense everywhere he’s been, Vol fans should have some confidence that the defense will be much improved over the past two seasons
  • At the same time, and for many of the same reasons, there should be reason for optimism at the skill positions of QB, RB, and WR/TE
  • Related to #2/#3, there are incoming players that should be able to contribute immediately at a variety of positions, including but not limited to graduate transfer RB Madre London (Michigan State); JUCO All-American TE Dominick Wood-Anderson; JUCO DL Emmitt Gooden; LB JJ Peterson; and CB Treveon Flowers

All that said, easily the two biggest areas of concerns heading into the summer are the Offensive Line and Cornerback.  And everyone knows the old adage that “the SEC is a line of scrimmage league,” while at the same time many of the offenses in this league – not to mention that of opening game opponent West Virginia – are well suited to exploit a weak secondary.  So, where does that leave Vol fans looking for some optimism about the upcoming season?  It’s a game of “Ifs” at these two crucial positions, and below we’ll take a look at the OL

Offensive Line Will Depend on Health and Overall Improvement

Tennessee’s Offensive Line was nothing short of atrocious last season, suffering numerous injuries and attrition that led to virtually non-existent pass protection – and the resulting near death of QB Jarret Guarantano on multiple occasions – and a run game that was below average at best despite an NFL RB in John Kelly.  This spring has shown some faint glimmers of hope though, as Pruitt has doled out some of his very rare compliments to the OL, at least in terms of their relative improvement over the course of the five weeks of practice.  The OL as a whole, with some minor exceptions, has managed to avoid the kind of daily injuries that it suffered last spring and even into the fall, while at the same time some players who were thought to be lost for good to injury have made reappearances.  However, there are still more than a few things that will need to happen in order for Tennessee to field an average OL, which it will need to if it wants to improve on last season’s disastrous 4-8 record.  So looking to the fall, here are 10 “Ifs” that the Vols will need to see come through:

  • IF Trey Smith, Tennessee’s best OL and an anchor for the entire team, can come back healthy and pick up where he left off last season
  • IF K’rohjn Calbert can shake off the rust from his multiple injuries to bring his physical presence, matched only by Trey Smith on the entire OL, and make a play for a starting spot
  • IF Chance Hall can come back from missing the last two seasons and regain at least some of the form that made observers think he was a possible 3-years-and-done Tackle
  • IF Drew Richmond, on his 3rd OL coach in three seasons, can unlock his 5-star pedigree and become an above-average LT
  • IF Marcus Tatum can combine the weight gain that’s finally got him over 300 lbs with his better than average athleticism to become the kind of player the previous staff (and UF’s) thought he could be at RT
  • IF JUCO Jahmir Johnson can get to campus having put weight on his relatively light frame and show up ready to contribute immediately
  • IF Ryan Johnson, Riley Locklear and Devonte Brooks can leverage their experience gained last season and the reps they’ve gotten in the absence of Smith and Calbert to take a large step in their respective games
  • IF Jerome Carvin and Ollie Lane can leverage the massive amount of reps this spring as early enrollees to become contributors
  • IF either spring practice position changers Greg Emerson or Eric Crosby can stick on the OL and become contributors
  • IF Nathan Niehaus can stay healthy and push for rotational snaps, at least in out of conference games like ETSU, UTEP, and Charlotte to give starters a breather

Tennessee doesn’t need 100% of the above things to happen, although getting Trey Smith is as close to a must as there can be.  From there it needs some combination of health and talent development among its maximum 15 scholarship OL (the above plus true freshman Tanner Antonutti, who I expect to redshirt) to field an average unit that can allow it to compete in each of its twelve scheduled games.  IF the right combination happens I think there is enough talent throughout the rest of the roster that, along with what should be a very strong coaching staff, Tennessee can have a successful season in Pruitt’s first year and serve as a springboard to quickly getting back to competing for championships.

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