With the season opener just five days away, Tennessee will kick off its 2019 schedule with a 3-game out of conference slate before the all-important game against Florida starts the SEC gauntlet. The initial stretch features two games against relatively lower-end competition (Georgia State and Chattanooga) sandwiched around what should be a very tough game against BYU. So while the Vols will likely ease into the season on Saturday, they must be immediately prepared for the game against the Cougars and then of course be tuned up for the rest of the season. Given the way the schedule breaks down, therefore, Tennessee must optimize those 120 minutes in Weeks 1 and 3. When Jeremy Pruitt waxed both poetically and cryptically about the pros and cons of playing younger (and potentially more talented) players vs. more experienced veterans, to a certain degree this is what he was talking about. As you look over a 12-game schedule, how do you get your main contributors tuned up while also keeping them as fresh as possible, get your bench players snaps so they’re ready when and if needed, and also give yourself the best chance of winning each and every game? That’s the conundrum facing every coach in America, but particularly when it comes to a roster with lot of players from the former regime as well as newer players to work in, this opening schedule gives Tennessee a chance to do all of those things as much as possible.
Below is a look, by position, at players at each position who Coach Pruitt and his staff need to play as much as possible in especially the games against GSU and Chattanooga and who in turn need to take as much advantage as possible of the opportunity:
The story here is obvious. Neither of the Vols backup Quarterbacks have ever taken a college snap, and regardless of the optimism around the 2019 Offensive Line there is still a greater-than-zero chance that one of them is needed for at least a handful of snaps in a meaningful game this season. Therefore, it’s imperative that Tennessee use these two games to not only determine which of Shrout or Maurer are next in line behind Jarrett Guarantano but also give both of them as many real (i.e., not simply 100% garbage time handoffs) opportunities to learn and grow. That will not only clarify the depth chart but also make Tennessee coaches at least slightly less nervous if and when one of them has to actually play.
Tennessee has a commitment from 2020 stud QB Harrison Bailey and also just had former 4-star and University of Maryland QB Kasim Hill transfer in. While Hill’s future scholarship status is unknown, his presence on the roster for 2020 along with Bailey’s commitment will allow Tennessee coaches to rest a little easier about the Quarterback position in 2020 regardless of whether Guarantano comes back for his 5th season in Knoxville or not.
There’s only one non-veteran in the RB corps, and Gray is someone Vol coaches and fans are very excited to see. He brings an element of play-making that’s not only unique to this team but also potentially gives Offensive Coordinator Jim Chaney a ton of flexibility with how he can utilize multiple formations and personnel sets, especially in combination with fellow RB Ty Chandler. The guess here is that we don’t see a lot of that dynamism against GSU since the Vols should be able to run up the score without showing BYU anything to work on for the following week. But getting Gray his first college carries will still be worthwhile since it will eliminate any jitters when he does get carries that matter.
With the move of Jeremy Banks from RB to LB, Tennessee will enter the 2019 season with only four RBs on the depth chart, one of which (Carlin Fils-Aime) is a senior and one of which (Chandler) is at least a potential NFL early entrant. The Vols do have one RB commitment in the 2020 class in Tee Hodge, a big and talented player from Maryville. Ideally there would be a second, very talented back in this class. However right now there is a dearth of legitimate options and the best one, Ty Jordan, appears to be a heavy Texas lean due to his family’s medical situation. Certainly the staff will be on the lookout both for breakout senior season performers and also for any shaky commitments to other schools. But in the interim, Gray looking like a future star would at least make it a legitimate discussion as to whether that second RB is in fact a need rather than a “nice to have.”
Although the Tennessee TE room has more bodies than it has in a long time, outside of expected star Dominick Wood-Anderson and oft-injured but skilled Austin Pope, there are zero career catches and barely a handful of snaps among the rest. Craig is a walkon who’s impressed the staff with his physicality and potential to also play some H-Back, while Fant has bounced around between a couple of positions but has lot of athleticism and good size. Warren/Lowe/Brown are Pruitt signees with great size – especially as a group now that Warren is up to the mid-240s after signing closer to 210 pounds – with tons of promise. Ideally at least one of them break through and force Chaney and TE Coach Brian Niedermeyer to give them more and more snaps as the season goes on, and these two games are the best opportunity for them to earn that in a lower-risk environment.
Right now the Vols do not have a commitment from a TE in the 2020 recruiting class, and realistically at this point only have one real target in 5-star Darnell Washington. The Vols are very much in that recruitment and will receive an official visit from him during the season. However, the other two top teams are Alabama and Georgia, two recruiting juggernauts who have already hosted Washington a time or two more than Tennessee has. Complicating that recruitment is the notion that Washington and 5-star Arik Gilbert (more on him below) are unlikely to sign with the same team, and Tennessee/Alabama/Georgia make up Gilbert’s top 3 as well. Can Tennessee convince Gilbert and Washington that Gilbert is truly a WR (a pitch that was Tennessee’s originally and is likely being stolen by the other competitors) and sign them both? Can they beat out those two schools for either one of these studs anyway? That all remains to be seen. What is known, however, is that as good as Washington is – and he looks like an NFL TE right now before playing a down of his senior season in high school – if a handful of those freshmen can show they are potentially top-end SEC TEs than signing one in this class becomes more of a luxury than a necessity. And with the potential complications with Gilbert noted above, as well as potential issues with numbers in this class for the Vols, that would be big.
Jordan Murphy/Jacquez Jones
Cedric Tillman/Ramel Keyton
Tennessee’s WR rotation is as firmly set as any position on the team, with three Seniors and Junior who’ve all played a lot of quality football likely to get the bulk of the snaps and targets throughout the season. However, beyond just the ever-present chance of injury over the course of the season, no team can ever have too many offensive playmakers, so were at least 1-2 of the group above to step up and become a legitimate threat for Guarantano that would broaden the options that Guarantano and Chaney have at their disposal. Murphy has of course showed more in his career to-date than the others, but so far he’s left everyone thinking there’s a lot more there. Volquest.com has reported that there have been some rumblings of Jones flashing some this preseason. Same for Keyton. Tillman is a big bodied WR who is still fairly raw but who has physical gifts and plenty of time to develop them. In an ideal world the Vols stamp the blowouts over GSU and Chattanooga early enough to get the veterans off the field and these guys on early, allowing the coaches to see if any of them can truly help this season.
The underlying storyline at the position is that with the aforementioned veterans departing after this season (pending Junior Josh Palmer’s season and subsequent NFL early entry decision) there is going to be a ton of question marks at the position in 2020; therefore, a handful of these guys at the very least showing the potential to be legit SEC players next season would not just be big for themselves individually but would also clarify things for the Tennessee coaching staff in terms of numbers for the 2020 recruiting class. Right now the Vols have commitments from one pure WR in Jalin Hyatt and then two players in Darion Williamson and Jimmy Calloway who could project at WR but also have some positional flexibility depending on team need and (especially for Williamson) how their respective bodies change over the next few years. As noted above, Arik Gilbert is either target 1A or 1B at the position along with fellow 5-star Rakim Jarrett. Jarrett is ostensibly an LSU commitment but the Vols were in great shape even before his teammate Mordecai McDaniel commitment to Tennessee last week and then Hill – a former St. Johns College HS player himself – enrolled at Tennessee. The Vols also continue to recruit Alabama commitment Thaiu Jones-Bell, but the necessity for yet another WR signee will be illuminated over the course of the season and will depend on the performance of these players as well as Palmer’s NFL decision.
The storylines from this angle are virtually the same for both the Offensive and Defensive Lines, the positions with the most question marks going into the season and therefore the positions that will ultimately determine the ceiling and the floor for this team. While the OL has more experience than the DL, both have tons of youth projected to play major roles while the rotations aren’t set at either position as well. Ideally the Volunteer DL is dominant against both GSU and Chattanooga, getting all 11 scholarship players tons of work to prepare for the rest of the season, and more than holds its own against a BYU OL that is experienced and talented and many will see as a competitive advantage for the Cougars going into the game.
It seems certain that at this point the best case for the OL in particular is:
GSU: Tennessee plays up to 10 players and gets great pass protection and push in the run game throughout
BYU: Tennessee has used the GSU game to narrow down the rotation to closer to 7-8 with a starting 5 they preferably ride the entire game with success
Chattanooga: Depending on the success in the BYU game, Tennessee either continues to ride with the 5 from the BYU game and then also gets the remaining 5 tons more work OR has tweaked the starting 5 from the BYU yet still works in the other 5 to gain more experience
The entire strategy should be aimed at heading to Gainesville with a cohesive starting 5 that’s seen success together at least in the Chattanooga game along with a deep bench that’s gotten tons of snaps this season already
To’oto’to is going to start and looks like a Freshman phenom who’s going to be a star at Tennessee. Getting any Freshman reps in games like these is always important, but when you’re truly counting on one it’s imperative. Reid is the most experienced of this group, but these games will give him a chance to showcase the newly added bulk and simply that he’s taken a real step towards being a true contributor in the ILB rotation. Given Daniel Bituli’s injury situation – and that he’s a player Tennessee can ill afford to be absent during SEC play – Reid could very well start the opener.
The remaining four have seen a collective zero ILB snaps during their respective careers. Peterson is a former 5-star recruit who spent last season trying to catch up from showing up late and out of shape. He’s battled back from injuries early in fall camp and absolutely could use the reps to get truly acclimated to major college football and for the coaches to see if he’s really got 5 (or even 4)-star potential. Banks moved (back) to LB last week – Vol fans know the deal here: very athletic and ultra-aggressive, Banks practiced some a LB late last season and impressed, but because of depth issues at RB was moved back. Gray has seemingly passed him in the pecking order so it makes sense to give him another shot here, especially with the relatively light ILB depth. Beasley is a promising looking freshman who many (including in this space) had pegged as a future LB despite starting out at S. He’s already been moved and these games are a great chance for him to get his feet wet. Page has been in the program for a few years and realistically probably just doesn’t have the size or speed to play at this level. But getting kids like this some run, especially in blowouts, can never hurt.
Bennett needs to show that his slimmed down frame has brought with it new explosiveness – these games are a chance for him to earn real snaps along with Deandre Johnson opposite Darrell Taylor and try to hold off Crouch and Harrison, two freshmen who are likely to provide at least rotational snaps at the position as they both bring a level of speed and athleticism missing on the roster. Florida’s OL held up reasonably well against Miami’s pass rush this past Saturday night, but they are still inexperienced and a relative weakness for the Gators and QB Felipe Franks is abysmal when under pressure. Therefore, figuring out how to maximize the pass rush while minimizing the number of blitzes will be key for Tennessee In that game, which is why it is essential that the Vols staff uses these two games to get their young pass-rushers ready.
Treveon Flowers/Shawn Shamburger
Kenneth George/Cheyenne Labruzza/Brandon Davis
Warren Burrell/Tyus Fields/Jerrod Means/Kenny Solomon
The news over the weekend about Bryce Thompson, and the uncertainty that brings to Tennessee’s secondary while his situation is sorted out, makes this particular section all the more meaningful. We’ll operate under the assumption that Thompson misses at least the GSU game, in which case it’s likely that Freshman Warren Burrell will start alongside Sophomore Alontae Taylor at Cornerback while Junior Shawn Shamburger, a relatively little-used but talented player, continues to project as the starting Nickelback. It would also mean that all of the other players above, from the returning players getting one of their first respective starts like Shamburger and Flowers; returning players who have played very little such as George, Labruzza, and Davis; and Burrell’s fellow Freshmen Fields, Means, and Solomon, will all move up a slot in the rotation against GSU and Chattanooga. The starters will need to show that they’re capable of being high level SEC players, while the less experienced returners and the freshmen sans Burrell will have an opportunity to show that they can help this season and then be meaningful contributors and possibly starters down the road in their careers. A guy like Means, who moved over from WR this fall and has shown promise to go with his physical gifts, or a guy like Solomon who could be used on Kick Returns (especially in Thompson’s absence, and especially in low-risk situations), have unique opportunities to show they belong.
Ultimately the best thing that can come from these games is for Tennessee to come out of them with tons of confidence, newly experienced players, and a clean injury sheet. The latter is arguably the most important but is also the thing most out of anyone’s control. So the staff must focus on the first two and maximize the opportunities so that they give the team the best chance to hit its ceiling.