If you want a glimpse of what the Vols hope to look like in a couple years, wide receiver and linebacker are the best place to look: proven multi-year starters with NFL potential, and elite incoming freshmen who might play but don’t have to be the answer. Tennessee’s two highest-rated recruits in 2019 don’t fall into the latter category, as you’ll be seeing plenty of Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright right away on the offensive line. But after them, the next three highest-rated signees can learn from proven answers on the depth chart: Henry To’oto’o and Quavaris Couch at linebacker, and Ramel Keyton at wide receiver.
It makes sense to find Tennessee’s wide receivers and linebackers among the highest-rated units nationally. Phil Steele lists the Vol receivers as the 13th best group in the nation, and the linebackers 12th. But Tennessee’s highest-rated position group in his magazine is…special teams?
The Vol specialists are 10th in his preseason unit rankings. Some of this is bringing all the pieces back in Brent Cimaglia, Joe Doyle, Marquez Callaway and Ty Chandler. But a couple of those pieces were quietly impressive last season.
When you’re trying to rebuild, special teams can make a big difference in close games. But the Vols were so far behind last season, there really wasn’t much opportunity for special teams to matter. In fact, one of Cimaglia’s few misses last season came in the Auburn game.
If you lose six games by at least four possessions, special teams can’t help you. But if the Vols improve enough to find themselves in more competitive games this fall? Tennessee’s experience and expertise in the third phase can be the difference in winning and losing (see 2009 Alabama, 2013 South Carolina, etc.).
Last season doesn’t offer much context for special teams, but the rest of Tennessee’s decade does. Check out Cimaglia’s performance compared to other Vol kickers in the post-Fulmer era:
Or how about Marquez Callaway returning punts?
If what the Vols do in close games projects to be a major factor in the difference between 6-6 and 8-4, special teams has the potential to swing an outcome or two in Tennessee’s favor. The Vol specialists quietly had a strong year in 2018. In 2019, expect more opportunities to make some noise.