It’s almost August, the time of year when optimism not only blooms but grows into a monster with an unquenchable thirst for blood. Everybody’s 0-0 and dreaming of wins.
Most Tennessee fans, though, if they are dreaming at all, are dreaming modest dreams of six to eight wins. But things can always change in a hurry, and all it takes is just an innocent little taste of some good news. Feed me, Seymour!
Here’s what I’m hoping to hear over the next several weeks leading up to kickoff.
Trey Smith is cleared to play
If you’re a Vols fan, you know Smith’s story, but here’s the nutshell version: Incredibly highly-touted and recruited, Smith chose Tennessee, lived up to the hype as a true freshman, and then had his career derailed by a serious medical condition. He got back on the field early last year, but was sidelined by relapse. It had to be terrible news for him, and it wasn’t good for the team, either.
This offseason, so far, is playing out like the last in that Smith is working to get back on the field, but there’s been no official word heading into fall camp whether he’ll be able to play. At SEC Media Days a couple of weeks ago, Jeremy Pruitt said that the team and Smith’s doctors were “figuring out a plan” to have him play, which sounds encouraging. But until there’s an official announcement that Smith is going to suit up and start hitting people, we’ll just have to sit and wait and dream those modest dreams.
If Smith plays, his presence will immediately improve the outlook for an offensive line that was the chokepoint for the entire offense last season. This unit should improve even if Smith can’t play, but with him, the improvement could prove quite dramatic. And that, along with a capable defensive line, could make the most difference for the team this fall.
Aubrey Solomon is ruled eligible
Speaking of the defensive line . . . Aubrey Solomon is a 6’5″, 299-pound DL who transferred to Tennessee from Michigan this offseason. A 5-star recruit and an Army All-American out of high school, Solomon played in 13 games as a true freshman at Michigan and had 4 starts and 18 tackles. Last season, he suffered a knee injury early in the season and played in only five games.
Bottom line, this guy’s good (assuming he’s healthy), and Tennessee desperately needs him, as the majority of the productivity along last year’s defensive line has walked across the aisle, diploma in hand, never to return again.
Unfortunately, Solomon’s fate is in the hands of a schizophrenic mad man. For him to play as a Volunteer this fall, the NCAA will have to rule him immediately eligible, and the body of law that constitutes the NCAA’s eligibility decisions can best be summed up as “Huh?” Maybe if he petitions for wisdom, he’ll get both wisdom and immediate eligibility. Hey, it could work.
No injuries, medical conditions, or early retirements
Just two short years ago, Tennessee was on the cusp of becoming Injury-U. Just prior to the 2017 season, we discussed Phil Steele’s bounce-back data, which is a measure of how many starts a team loses to injury in a given year. At the time, the data showed that Tennessee had lost more starts to injury (52) than any other team in college football in 2016. Woo.
The kicker? Having a lot of injuries in a season generally means that the team does better the following year, but the Vols bucked the trend and instead put together a two-year injury dynasty, leading the nation in starts-lost-to-injury in 2017 as well. As far as I can tell, Steele isn’t compiling that data anymore, and I suspect Tennessee is the reason why.
The numbers for 2018 elude me, but just going from memory, I’d have to say that Tennessee wisely abdicated its injury throne last year. Yes, I know there’s been a plague of medical retirements and that the offensive line has been hit the hardest, but it did seem to be mostly better last year, didn’t it?
Regardless, some of the best news we could get this August will be in the form of no news: no news of injuries, no news of more medical conditions, no news of early retirements. This no news is good news.
Making time for Guarantano
One other important bit of news I’ll be actively looking for over the next month is word that quarterback Jarrett Guarantano will be spending more time on his feet and less time having grass stains power-washed off his vertebrae.
Guarantano was sacked on over 8% of his dropbacks last season, and 39% of his throws were made under pressure. Dude needs more time to do his job, is what I’m saying.
As David Hale says in that linked article, Guarantano was much better than most are willing to give him credit for despite suffering from acute temporal distress. Imagine what he could do with just a little more time.
The team can make time for Guarantano on two fronts. First, improvement along the offensive line would increase the actual amount of time he has to make decisions. Second, if Guarantano can improve the speed at which he makes throwing decisions, he’ll decrease the amount of time he needs to throw. I’m no math whizz, but I think that if you combine those two things, Guarantano will have more time to operate back there, and the passing game should improve. Plus, Jim Chaney is probably worth a few ticks himself.
An improved passing attack should help the run game as well by preventing defenses from reducing Tennessee’s offense to a one-dimensional, can’t-do-anything mound of unproductive activity. Balance, it’s all the rage.
So there you have it, the tasty bits of news I’m desperate to hear during fall camp.
What is it you want from Seymour?