In looking at the two weakest positions on the 2018 team coming out of spring practice – the OL and Cornerback – I’ve made it clear that I think that while the team is not in any position to compete for titles it’s reasonable for a fan to expect improvement in the win column to the tune of a handful of games.
Part of that “optimism,” if one can call it that, is the expected across-the-board improvement in coaching. It’s hard to argue against the idea that Pruitt and his staff aren’t better than their predecessors at every position except for RB (Coach G is a stud, in my opinion, while Chris Weinke is unproven), and the off-field staff isn’t just meaningfully larger than before but also contains tons of experience. At the same time, it is a fact that as bad as last season’s team was it was also within a handful of plays from winning against Florida, South Carolina, and Kentucky, and also lost to a bad Vanderbilt team in the season finale with a lame duck interim coach and no motivation other than trying to avoid the ignominious distinction of being the first Tennessee team in school history to lose eight games.
None of the above guarantees anything, of course, and it’s also fair to note that Tennessee won all four of its non-conference games – including a thrilling come from behind win against Georgia Tech – while it will be at least a touchdown underdog in its opener against West Virginia. There’s also no doubting that from top to bottom the talent on the roster is deficient when compared to the cream of the SEC, most importantly three of its 2018 opponents in Alabama, Georgia, and Auburn. And after watching the players on the field for the Orange & White Game there isn’t a ton other than hope that former 4 and 5-stars can be coached to their potential while the 2 and 3-stars on the roster can be coached up.
However (and here’s where I put my at least slightly orange tinted glasses on), what we saw at the Orange & White Game isn’t the team that will take the field in Charlotte against West Virginia on September 1. Reinforcements, in the form of players returning from injury, 2018 signees, and graduate transfers, are coming and will inject talent and experience to the roster. Many of them are simply better than their teammates at their respective positions and should take their place, upgrading not just the front-line players Tennessee has on the field but also the backups at those positions.
On the Offensive side, Offensive Linemen Trey Smith and Chance Hall project as starters at Offensive Tackle should they return from their respective injuries. Both are high level players, and Smith in particular is a future high NFL draft pick barring any further physical issues (and seems much more likely to play this year than Hall, for what it’s worth). 4-star JUCO Jahmir Johnson will join the fold and add another talented player at either Guard or Tackle. Also on the OL, it is widely expected that the Vols will bring in at least one more player at the position, either in the form of a graduate transfer or a late-signing JUCO the staff thinks can step in and contribute. Per Austin Price of Volquest.com there is a lot of buzz around former Alabama C/G Brandon Kennedy, a former Under-Armor All-American who was the Tide’s backup C and who would go a long way towards solidifying the interior of Tennessee’s OL. He would also provide more overall depth and give OL Coach Will Friend more options and flexibility at the other four OL positions. Finally at OL, freshmen K’Rohjn Calbert and Jerome Carvin, both of whom got their most extended snaps in the Orange & White Game and have the kind of sheer size and athleticism that upper echelon SEC OL possess, should see a jump in their play after a summer in the weight room and a fall practice to get further acclimation . Former Michigan State Running Back Madre London and 2018 signee Jeremy Banks are the kind of big, physical RB that Pruitt covets and bolster a RB corps that already has talent. JUCO All-American Tight End Dominick Wood-Anderson is simply more talented than any other TE on the roster and brings NFL potential to an offense that needs as many playmakers as it can get. And finally, former Stanford starting Quarterback Keller Chryst will at worst push Jarrett Guarantano to up his game and provide an experienced backup QB where Tennessee currently has none and at best (for him) win the job outright, by definition improving the QB spot for the Vols.
Defensively, every level of the stop-troop unit will see an influx of talent from what took Shields-Watkins Field in April. On the Defensive Line, JUCO DL Emmitt Gooden in particular has the size and physical maturity to help immediately on the interior should he show up in decent shape and ready to work; freshman John Mincey will add another big body to the DE group, and he appears to have the size and talent to potentially contribute early. The LB spot is the one that will get the biggest boost, as not only will the position see the return of proven playmakers Darren Kirkland and Daniel Bituli but also the addition of All-American freshman JJ Peterson – these three are arguably among a handful of top-shelf/elite players on the entire team, and their presence will certainly improve the Defense as a whole from what fans saw a month or so ago. Finally, at CB (potentially the #1 weak spot on the team pending what happens on the OL), the Vols will first and foremost benefit from Alontae Taylor’s status as a fulltime Corner. And although he did play there in the Orange & White Game, based on what we know about his natural athleticism, work ethic, and competitiveness, the bet here is that what we see from him when fall camp rolls around won’t even resemble what he looked like in his first real action in the spring game. Two other major additions to the position are late-signing JUCO Kenneth George – who the staff appears high on and is more physically and mentally advanced due to his being further removed from high school – and incoming freshman Treveon Flowers – who the staff absolutely loves and for whom Tennessee flat out beat Clemson. Both should add athleticism and playmaking ability to a position in dire need of both, and at worst will give the staff more options (i.e., bodies) to work with.
None of above is meant to imply that this writer thinks the 2018 Vols are going to contend for championships or even be one of the better teams in the East. However, it should make Vol fans feel good that there is help on the way in terms of more and better and in some cases more experienced talent, all of which should make an immediate impact. Between that improved talent, better coaching, and (hopefully) better luck – these Vols will need every bounce they can get – there is optimism in these corners that the season will be much better than last and perhaps even much better than we expected coming out of last month’s Orange & White Game.