There has been an overhaul of Tennessee football. It seems like ages ago that they were the brunt of every joke for their embarrassing coaching hire process. Overall, I like the hires that they made, but I don’t think they will pay many dividends in 2018. Tyson Helton takes over as offensive coordinator, and that likely sparks the interest of many CFF players. How’s this for the 2015 Western Kentucky team that he coordinated:
QB: 388 of 540 for 5,055 yards, 48 TD, and 9 INT
RB: 155-1091-9 rushing, 164-650-11 rushing
WR: 86-1467-17 receiving, 64-971-6 receiving, 82-844-8 receiving, 55-701-7 receiving
TE: 38-563-8 receiving
I don’t expect that we see those types of returns this season, but it does help provide some hope and a picture of what the absolute ceiling of this offense could look like down the road. Three QBs will be involved in this race. Jarrett Guarantano, Will McBride and graduate transfer Keller Chryst from Stanford will arrive this summer. I don’t have very high hopes for any of these players. Jeremy Pruitt has rarely mentioned his QBs by name in press conferences so it’s challenging to glean much from those and it leaves me feeling like I’m in the dark.
The group at running back looks to largely be comprised of Ty Chandler, Trey Coleman, and Tim Jordan. Michigan State grad-transfer Madre London and incoming freshman Jeremy Banks will enter the fray as well. The main takeaway that I have from following the program this spring is that ball security is of the utmost importance. Jeremy Pruitt mentions ball security at the beginning of any answer to a question that centers around the running backs.
Madre London has 190 career carries and just two fumbles, so that bodes well for the big back. Ty Chandler was a true freshman last season, and he didn’t’ fumble on any of his 71 carries. This, too, is good news for the very talented sophomore. My guess is that the bulk of the work is done by London and Chandler. In fairness, I know very little about the other backs on the roster, so perhaps they possess a lot of talent and will be bigger factors than I think. Helton’s WKU offense featured a nice carry split in 2015, 155 and 164, but in 2014 Leon Allen went 272-1542-13 on the ground. Given Pruitt’s DNA being intertwined with Nick Saban’s, my guess is he advocates for the committee approach that has been successful at Alabama.
Chandler is still the back I prefer to roster at the moment, but with the recent news of the London transfer, I’m less optimistic about his potential volume. There is a chance that none of the guys in this group are relevant if they don’t fix the offensive line issues that plagued them last season. Three key contributors will need to be replaced and Tennessee’s best overall player, SO Trey Smith, has been out this spring. There is potential with this group, but I think they will likely be one of the worst units in the conference to start the year.
The picture at WR is a bit muddied as well. Marquez Callaway, Jauan Jennings, Brandon Johnson and Latrell Williams could end up being the most productive players from this group. Callaway showed some flashes last season once Jennings was lost for the year, but he was inconsistent. Jennings is still recovering from injury and earning his way back onto the team after a series of bad choices, but he is their most talented guy at the position. I think Brandon Johnson is a player that could do well for himself this season. He had a couple of 100-yard games this season and is reportedly having a nice camp. I think the future of this offense may consist of some smaller players that are more dynamic in space but the main guys made in that mold would be Latrell Williams and Jacquez Jones.
Josh Palmer played as a true freshman in 2017, so he could even be a guy that factors into the outside WR rotation. Seemingly every practice a player like Tyler Byrd (who has incredible speed) is bouncing between the secondary and WR due to how poor and thin they are in the secondary. I’m going to need some time to try to figure out what this group is going to look like this season. Last Saturday’s scrimmage was closed, but the one thing I’ve heard is that the WRs had a good day.
There is a group of TEs that are unproven. Dominick Wood-Anderson was one of the top-rated JUCO prospects, and he could step right in and be productive. Tyler Higbee had a great 2015 season in Helton’s offense so that I will look at their TEs in the late rounds of CFF drafts this year.
Jeremy Pruitt is a defensive guy. He’s a “football guy.” How about this quote to embody who he is, “I don’t think they play music during football games. Or I haven’t ever heard it, maybe they do. You know we already just got 20 hours in a week that we can coach ‘em. So I darn sure don’t want music out there where they can’t hear what I’m saying.” Football guy.
The bad news is he doesn’t have a very good roster in 2018. Shy Tuttle and Jonathan Kongbo both have the pedigree and potential to be good players on the line. At LB, Darrin Kirkland Jr. is their best player, and he has been recovering from injury this spring, but he is a key cog in their defense. He tore his meniscus in training camp last year and just underwent some other clean up work on his knee. Daniel Bituli, Will Ignont, Quart’e Sapp and true freshman JJ Peterson could all be in the mix in the base 3-4. The secondary is in real bad shape. I previously mentioned how many players are getting work at DB due to the numbers. That is not good. This defense requires so much from their corners, and if they can’t execute, then they are going to get torched through the air.
I know Pruitt will prefer that to being gashed on the ground and it’s probably best to be weaker at the back in the SEC than in other conferences. WVU QB, Will Grier, could have a real field day against these guys in the season opener. This is a rebuilding year for Tennessee and I think Pruitt was a pretty good hire but I’ll be looking to fade the Vols this fall.