KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 24, 2020 - Defensive back Alontae Taylor #2 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Caleb Jones/Tennessee Athletics
2020 Results: 3-7, 3-7 (SEC)
2021 Projection: 6-6, 3-5
Here we go again Vols fans. For the fifth time since 2008 a new coach takes the reigns at Tennessee. Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt paved the way for Josh Heupel to take over in Knoxville. It’s been a painful run, but a new Athletic Director and Head Coach that come off an amazing run at UCF may be the ticket to repairing over a decade of turmoil for the former powerhouse program.
Heupel is a proven offensive mind after leading the most up-tempo attack in the nation at UCF. Implementing that attack in year one, will be tricky due simply to a lack of repetition. Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker does provide some upside at quarterback and is now almost certainly going to be the starter after Kaidon Salter was dismissed from the team.
How well he picks up Heupel’s offense will determine just how fast the Vols can go, but if you didn’t see the blur that UCF was getting the ball snapped in 2020, you missed an impressive show. It was tough for defenses to rotate players in and even get set for the next play, but it is going to take time to get Tennessee’s attack up to that speed.
The Vols lack experience and production at running back after Eric Gray bolted for Oklahoma. They will lean on Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small, but neither is a proven commodity. The receiving corps has talent, and Heupel will run a scheme that should get them open, but the pass blocking will have to improve dramatically after a nightmare of a season in 2020.
Trey Smith is gone, but Cade Mays and Darnell Wright are former five-star recruits that need to live up to their billing this season if the line is going to improve. Scheme can go a long way to improving and offense and Heupel brings that acumen, but you still need skill and experience to succeed in the SEC.
Five seniors on the defensive line utilized the Covid-19 exemption and will return for the 2021 season to lead the most experienced unit on the Vol defense. Matthew Butler, LaTrell Bumphus and Aubrey Solomon are three of those vets that should give stability to the defense, but it may not be enough to overcome the mass exodus at linebacker. Losing leading tackler Henry To’o To’o and his side-kick Quavaris Crouch leave gargantuan holes to fill and a pair of former running backs turned linebackers are the leading candidates to play sand bag in Jeremy banks and Aaron Beasley.
The secondary however is stacked and should be the strength of the defense. Led by Alontae Taylor at cornerback, they return a bevy of experience at safety in Trevon Flowers, Theo Jackson and Jaylen McCollough, while the other corner spot is down to a healthy competition between Warren Burrell and Kenneth George Jr.
The front and back end of the defense should be solid, but the inexperience at linebacker could neutralize those strengths.
The Vols return an excellent punter in Paxton Brooks, but had to look to the transfer portal to replace the departed Brent Cimaglia with former South Carolina kicker Chase McGrath, who went 32-42 on field goal attempts while in Columbia. Velus Jones is provides game-changing ability in the return game, so all in all, special teams should be a strength for the Vols this season.