Every week during football season we run a Most Important Vol feature, with our writing staff giving its picks for that week’s most important player (or coach) and a poll for you to vote among our choices. Looking back at the numbers is a different way to see the narrative of the season and who we looked to most often to make the difference. As spring practice unfolds and Tennessee is looking for new and improved difference makers, we look back at last year’s most popular Most Important Vols to help us look forward and fill those gaps.
(A note on methodology: each member of our writing staff nominates a different player every week, so each player could receive 13 votes for the year. I then added one vote for every time a player won the poll.)
Honorable Mention: Butch Jones, Colton Jumper, Alvin Kamara, Todd Kelly Jr., Josh Malone, Cam Sutton, Shy Tuttle (four nominations each)
A lot of names you’d expect, plus Jumper who scored a number of early season picks when Darrin Kirkland Jr. was out. This brings us to...
Third Place: Darrin Kirkland Jr. (six nominations)
The story of Tennessee’s efforts to stop the run: Kirkland won the poll in the opener against run-heavy Appalachian State, then after getting hurt against Virginia Tech was viewed as a key when he returned to curing what ailed the Vol defense. The results didn’t really follow, but whatever percentage he was playing at in November I’m going to guess it was less than 100%. He still finished eighth on the team in tackles despite playing in only eight games, and was third in tackles per game (5.63). Leading the Vols in that stat? Safeties Todd Kelly Jr. and Micah Abernathy. Never a good sign when the secondary leads you in tackles. But Kirkland will be back at full strength this fall, and should have a chance to again be a key component of the Vol defense.
Second Place: The Offensive Line (seven nominations)
This is just the group as a whole; individual offensive linemen earned another seven nominations combined. Before injuries in general became a theme in 2016, the health of a compromised offensive line was our number one concern. When the Florida game kicked off we were worried about their ability to just keep Josh Dobbs alive. And when the Vols got their shot at top-ranked Alabama, injuries forced them to play Drew Richmond, Venzell Boulware, Coleman Thomas, Jack Jones in a cast, and Marcus Tatum in his first appearance.
The level of defensive talent on the other side lessened in the second half of the season, but a healthy offensive line also made its presence felt. The Vols ran for 1,168 yards in the last three regular season games and the Music City Bowl. Entering 2017 the line moves from difference-maker in terms of not holding us back to difference-maker as a genuine strength. And though you can’t guarantee health, the depth of this group - which now adds Trey Smith to the fold - should give Tennessee a more-than-serviceable backup at all three line positions for the first time in the post-Fulmer era.
First Place: Josh Dobbs (eleven nominations)
I’m convinced that Mike DeBord’s play sheet on third-and-medium simply said, “Dobbs makes a play.” Tennessee’s quarterback went from the same old keep-it-safe presence against Virginia Tech to pocket passing revelation against Florida to the obvious centerpiece of Tennessee’s offense down the stretch. Dobbs was probably always more of that centerpiece than we gave him credit for when Jalen Hurd was around, but when he was gone we saw Tennessee’s offense hum against Texas A&M and in November/December.
Dormady and/or Guarantano will do some things better than Dobbs, but his ability to make a play on third down and turn nothing into something on any down will not be easily reproduced. Tennessee’s quarterback was obviously its most important player the last two years. If either of its quarterbacks wins this poll in the fall, will that be a good thing?