Without Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway, we prepared ourselves for two outcomes: the instant emergence of mythical freshman wide receivers, or more opportunities for Eric Gray and Ty Chandler in the passing game. It’s hard to use the word “exciting” when those new opportunities come at the expense of no longer having #15 and #1 out there, but both options felt full of possibility.
Instead, 16 of Jarrett Guarantano’s 19 completions at South Carolina went to veteran wide receivers.
It worked, so no complaints here, just an early observation.
Josh Palmer is one-for-one as the alpha: six catches, 85 yards, and the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter. That’s a great sign. I thought Velus Jones played a role similar to the way the Vols used Von Pearson a few years ago, finishing with five catches and 29 yards, unable to fully break free but with plenty of opportunity ahead, it seems. Brandon Johnson had the best catch of the night, finishing with three for 73. And Ramel Keyton was targeted more often than his two catches for 20 yards.
It’s early, and it’s weird with the virus. But none of the freshmen got involved in the passing game in week one, and Tennessee’s failures on third down didn’t allow enough distance between the Vols and Gamecocks to get them some snaps with Tennessee holding a comfortable lead.
Meanwhile, what we saw from the running backs in the passing game was…basically what we saw from the running backs in the passing game last year. Eric Gray got 31 yards on the ol’ flea flicker check down. Ty Chandler had one catch for 10 yards. And that’s it.
Last year Jennings, Callaway, and Palmer were a formidable trio: 123 catches between them, 61.5% of Tennessee’s total on the year by themselves. Dominick Wood-Anderson added 21 catches at tight end. And the backs? Gray and Chandler each finished with 13, or one per game…which is what they got Saturday. Tim Jordan had six catches in a dozen appearances.
The difference between Pruitt’s Vols and what we saw in Butch Jones’ five years can still feel a bit jarring in this department, considering the running back was an essential part of the passing game from 2013-17:
Tennessee’s secondary pass-catching RBs got the same kind of work in Jones’ offense that Gray and Chandler saw last year and last week: Marlin Lane had 11 catches in 2014, Jalen Hurd 22 in 2015 and 10 in his shortened 2016 campaign, Ty Chandler 10 in 2017.
Again, the Vols won and I thought Guarantano had one of his best starts. But I’ll be curious to see if the freshmen can get involved at receiver, and if Tennessee looks to Gray and Chandler more often. So far, it continues to be the preference of both the staff and the quarterback to throw the ball to receivers downfield far more often than not, even without Jennings and Callaway out there. If that continues to work, all this will go from curiosity to real strength. And it’s also nice to feel like the Vols have real options in the passing game we haven’t even seen yet.