By Alex Norman
As of the writing of this article, the Tennessee Volunteers have been in fall camp for about a week.
I can say without a doubt that after watching clips of the team practicing online that the Vols are definitely going 15-0.
I’m kidding, of course, but there is a renewed sense of optimism among Vol Nation, and positive vibes that have been lacking ever since the collapse of 2016. Tennessee was in complete control of the SEC East, yet somehow missed out not only on a trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game, but also a Sugar Bowl berth that would have been a quality consolation prize.
Perhaps it is the excitement of a new season, or the “let’s give him a chance” mentality that comes whenever a new coach is on the scene. Or maybe there is just a sense of relief that the clichés and coach speak of the Butch Jones era are nowhere to be heard in the Jeremy Pruitt regime. Whatever the reason, Tennessee football doesn’t look the same as it did a year ago, and that’s a good thing.
Tennessee’s roster still has its share of issues. Let’s start with the offense. The quarterback situation is still in flux. Will it be Jarrett Guarantano or grad transfer Keller Chryst that gets the starting nod? The offensive line needs to improve. The running back rotation must be figured out as Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan, grad transfer Madre London, and incoming freshman Jeremy Banks fight for carries. At wide receiver there is a lot of talent with Marquez Callaway, Jauan Jennings, Brandon Johnson and Josh Palmer ready to go, but will a quarterback be able to get them the ball? And at tight end, goodbye Ethan, hello Eli, as the Wolf family continues to take over that position (unless JUCO transfer Dominick Wood-Anderson beats him out).
On defense the secondary has talent, but cornerback is a concern. Will true freshman Alontae Taylor really get the week one start at that position? Remember, he came to campus this past January expecting to play wide receiver. He was one of the top recruits in the nation at that position, but Pruitt needs help at corner so… Taylor might be pressed into action. At safety Nigel Warrior, Micah Abernathy and Todd Kelly Jr. give the Vols less to worry about. At linebacker the Vols need more depth as they move to the 3-4, and Darrin Kirkland Jr., Quart’e Sapp, Darrell Taylor, Daniel Bituli, Will Ignont and Dillon Bates should all be the mix, with Kirkland and Bituli being the leaders of that grouping. The defensive line needs Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips and Alexis Johnson to play a lot of minutes because there simply isn’t a lot of help there. “Last Chance U” star Emmit Gooden might be forced into the lineup by necessity. The same may be the case with walk-on Paul Bain.
On special teams Brent Cimaglia should handle the place kicking responsibility, while Farragut alum Joe Doyle has a shot to beat out incoming freshman Paxton Brooks for the punting gig. The return game has options with Callaway, Chandler and Taylor, but they each will likely have other more pressing responsibilities, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see another player emerge.
Folks, there is talent on that roster. There’s no reason the Vols should be coming off a 4-8 season. But that’s where we are now. Pruitt will have to run a midseason gauntlet of Florida, at Georgia and Auburn, Alabama, and at South Carolina. If the wheels fall off the Vols could be 2-6 at that point.
This feels like one of those 5-7, 6-6 teams, but honestly… anyone that tells you they have a strong feeling what the Vols will do in 2018 is kidding themselves. Pruitt has never been a head coach before, so we have no idea how he will fare in those crucial in-game situations. If he panics, like Jones did, it’s going to be a long season.
But regardless, Tennessee football just feels differently these days.
And that’s a move in the right direction.