The other night, I drove past my old high school and saw the lights on at the “Pit” at Lincoln County High School. I went up to the gate, rolled the window down and smelled the wet grass on the field. It got me all gridiron-giddy.
Football is near.
And it won’t be long until we’re gearing ourselves up for the Vols to usher in the Jeremy Pruitt era.
We all know 2018 isn’t going to be a pretty sight, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk ourselves into the Vols being much-improved under the former Alabama defensive coordinator. After all, Butch Jones is gone.
You just can’t help this time of year to be a tiny bit optimistic, even if logic (and recent history) suggests this is going to be yet another rebuilding campaign in Knoxville. Pruitt wants to win now, and he definitely isn’t used to losing after successful tenures in Tuscaloosa, Tallahassee and Athens, Georgia.
He’s outfitted UT’s roster with more size, an injection of collegiate players like Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst, Michigan State running back Madre London, JUCO defensive tackle Emmit Gooden, JUCO cornerback Kenneth George Jr., JUCO tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson, JUCO offensive tackle Jahmir Johnson, and JUCO outside linebacker Jordan Allen who need to be able to help UT right away.
And he’s won some recruiting battles for guys who must be able to come right in and make an impact.
But what about the dudes already on the team? Who needs to make a major step forward in 2018 for the Vols to rise above the 4-8 doldrums of a historically horrible season where it looked like the team quit on former coach Butch Jones and his staff?
Over the course of the next five days, we’ll look at five offensive players and five defensive players who have to emerge and go beyond what they’ve already been. For some, it’s rising above good player status and becoming reliable stars. For others, it’s about reaching the potential that Jones failed to squeeze from them.
As always, you’re encouraged to make your own additions in the comments section.
No. 5 Jauan Jennings, Junior Wide Receiver
There aren’t a lot of alpha-dog difference-makers on Tennessee’s roster. After all, recruiting too many of those guys would have meant challenging Jones’ ego, and we all know that wasn’t something the former UT head honcho liked. So, too often, there were a lot of nice guys on the field who didn’t get the job done when it came crunch time.
That’s easy to look back on now, but none of us wanted to believe it as it was happening.
Jennings is a bad mamma jamma, and we all know this. Unfortunately for UT fans everywhere, he also has a history of being a bit of a turd, to put things mildly.
If you can look beyond those shortcomings, though, Jennings is a playmaker with the potential to be one of the biggest stars in the SEC. Two years ago, he had 40 catches for 580 yards and seven touchdowns for the Vols, including a soul-stealing catch-and-run score against Florida’s Jalen Tabor in a massive comeback win and the Hail Mary grab in the Dobb-nail boot win over Georgia.
Those are arguably the two most memorable plays in the past decade of Vol football.
Tennessee needs Jennings, and — let’s be honest here — Jennings needs the Vols, too. He is good enough to play in the NFL, and though that league is full of guys who’ve done much worse than Jennings, he needs to prove that he can take a second chance and run with it.
That’s exactly what’s happened so far as, after interim coach Brady Hoke, kicked him off the team, Jennings met with Jeremy Pruitt and athletic director Phillip Fulmer, who gave him a short leash and let him work his way back into the fold. He’s done nothing since that time but be an exemplary player and a leading presence.
He’s without a doubt going to have some rust after getting hurt in the season opener last year against Georgia Tech, missing the rest of the year and this past spring, but if he’s in football shape, he can plug in and be a No. 1 receiver.
Actually, he may be one of the seven best receivers in the SEC. He’s that good.
The Vols need him. Jarrett Guarantano (or Keller Chryst) needs him. And Jennings has the potential of catching an even bigger career Hail Mary and finishing a promising UT career with a flourish. If he does, it would be a storybook ending and it could help the Vols make a major leap forward in what many think will be a throw-away season.
No. 5 Jonathan Kongbo, Senior Outside Linebacker
If you were to look up “Typical Butch Jones recruit” in the figurative dictionary of disgruntled Tennessee fans, Kongbo’s picture would be right there beside the definition alongside Kahlil McKenzie, Drew Richmond, Kyle Phillips, and…and…and…
Yeah, you get the picture. It’s a long list.
Which is exactly the reason why Kongbo belongs on this list. Because, mainly, Kongbo still needs to prove he belongs.
He needs to prove that he belongs up there with the 5-star status that stood on his recruiting profile out of junior college. He needs to prove he’s a havoc-wreaking force who can make a difference on UT’s defense. Simply put: he needs to prove he belongs in an SEC starting lineup.
Those may be harsh words, but they’re true words.
Much like Jennings has to prove his maturity off the field, Kongbo needs to show growth on it. We’re not real sure what he can do.
After two largely ho-hum years, Kongbo enters his final season on Rocky Top moving a level back from defensive end to outside linebacker. It’s a spot that is also occupied by another former defensive end in Darrell Taylor. There are also players such as Allen, Austin Smith, and others who’ll battle for snaps at one of the spots. Nothing is going to be given to Kongbo, but there are also reasons to hope.
He’s an athletic physical specimen who fits perfectly in a 3-4 scheme. He’s playing for a coach now in Chris Rumph who has a rich history of developing players. And Kongbo is a natural pass-rusher, who can do just that this year. Rather than always having to be in position and getting taken off the field because he’s struggling to run-fit, Kongbo can just pin his ears back and get after quarterbacks.
If he is a one-trick pony this year for the Vols, that’ll be just fine, as long as that one trick is a good one. Give us sacks, young Kongbo. If you do that — say, give UT seven or eight sacks this year — that will completely transform this defense.
In my opinion, the biggest weakness on this entire team is the inability to get after the opposing quarterback. The second-biggest weakness is lack of proven, quality cornerbacks. When you combine the two — and throw in the inability to consistently stop anybody running up the middle — you have an atrocious, historically awful defense. The Vols are trying to emerge from the forgettable Bob Shoop era and return to respectability on that side of the ball.
In order to do that, quarterbacks need to fear somebody (anybody) coming off the edge.
If you have faith that somebody will be Kongbo, you have a whole lot more faith than you should. He’s shown us very little so far. But, how much of that was the Jones-Shoop fiasco, and how much of it is Kongbo maybe just not being an SEC player?
We all hope it’s the former and not the latter.
If Pruitt, Kevin Sherrer and Rumph can turn him into the kind of player that made everybody in the country want him out of JUCO, the Vols are going to have a very impressive player already on the roster.