Offensive Improvement for Vols in 2024?

By Mark Nagi

In 2022, the Tennessee Volunteers had the best offense in college football.  They averaged 46.1 points per game and 525.5 yards per game, making life difficult for nearly every defense they faced.

QB Hendon Hooker and WR Jalin Hyatt were the showstoppers for a group that set 15 program records, including total touchdowns (79), completion percentage (68.7%) and first downs (330).

They really had nowhere to go but down in 2023, and they dropped to 19th nationally in total offense (448.1 ypg) and 36th in scoring offense (31.8 ppg). Not awful numbers by any means, but enough of a drop to move the Vols from 11 wins to 9.

With spring practice underway, Tennessee is working towards a return to being a feared group on that side of the football. In terms of pass catchers, the Vols will bring back Squirrel White and Bru McCoy, but there are snaps to be up for grabs by newcomers. They will have to make an impact this Fall.

That group includes freshman Braylon Staley, a 4-star receiver from South Carolina. “I can play with speed,” said Staley. “Right now, I’m trying to get used to just the pace of this offense… the tempo. I’m trying to get used to playing with my speed because I know I can run fast. I have great hands, and I can run routes, so I’m just working on getting out of my breaks faster.”

“It’s definitely very intense,” said freshman wide receiver Mike Matthews, a 5-star from Georgia. “But everybody wants everybody to be good, because we want to be good as a receiver group. It’s pretty much everybody pushes everybody, but there’s also no slacking going on. It’s pretty much a good mix of both worlds.”

“You have to cut it loose,” said Tennessee offensive coordinator Joey Halzle. “You can’t make mistakes half speed, or we can’t gain anything from it. So, that’s been our huge coaching point at every position, but we have a lot of young, talented wideouts. The competition is awesome. It’s one of the best I’ve seen in spring ball. There’s not a lot of solidified guys going. It’s everybody going out there fighting for a spot.”

True freshman QB Jake Merklinger, a 4-star recruit from Georgia is opening some eyes during spring practice.

“Yes, it definitely feels fast when you first get in it,” said Merklinger. “It does feel like it is going a thousand miles an hour, but that just goes back to being able to stay calm and taking advice from the coaches. They help me a lot with being able to slow down my mind and see things.”

“Really athletic guy,” Halzle said of Merklinger. “High, high intelligence. Guys love him already. He’s one of the guys that just kind of fits right in and gets into the mold. Picked it up really, really quickly, which was great to see from us.”

That all said, this team likely will only go as far as Nico Iamaleava takes them. “He’s been more willing to step out and be like, ‘I got this,’” Halzle said. “Sometimes you’ll go to say something to a wideout, tight end or running back and he’ll just grab them first and take them. For him, it’s never super boisterous, loud or overly aggressive. It’s just him getting the information across. When he talks, guys listen. He doesn’t have to grab facemasks or scream. Guys want to hear what he has to say because they respect the work that he’s put in.”

Tennessee will play the annual Orange & White Game to finish spring practice on April 13.  The crowd will be limited due to construction activities taking place at Neyland Stadium.