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Where Would Injuries Be Most Costly?

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The defense was decimated last year, but the offense will be more vulnerable this fall.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

After a season when injuries were a bigger part of the narrative than any I can remember for Tennessee, I find myself just living into the assumption that someone significant will go down in 2017. When rumors spread that Jonathan Kongbo might have suffered a serious injury last week (“no long-term concerns” were reported) you almost wanted to take it in stride.

The sheer quantity of injuries is unlikely to be repeated; the Vols might have to just fold the program if things get even worse in that department. But before the body count piled up last year, it was particular injuries early that we thought would be so costly: Darrin Kirkland Jr. against Virginia Tech, then Cameron Sutton against Ohio. Kirkland’s back-up was former walk-on Colton Jumper (who did go on to exceed expectations) and a healthy Sutton was so much better than the alternatives at corner. Other than Josh Dobbs going down, I thought Sutton would be the most costly loss to Tennessee going into the year.

This time around the quarterback situation won’t seem as fragile if both of them are still on the roster in August. But where might quality depth be a serious issue for the Vols if a starter goes down? A year after the defense was hardest hit by injuries, the offense will be most vulnerable this fall:

  • Tight End: Last year the Vols got nearly identical numbers from Ethan Wolf and Jason Croom (21 catches each, separated by three receiving yards). The other three receptions by tight ends last year all came against Tennessee Tech. If Ethan Wolf goes down, it could fundamentally change Tennessee’s passing game if younger brother Eli or a true freshman can’t become a reliable second option. I’ll be really curious to see how often the Vols work in a two tight end package early in the year; that’ll tell us a lot about the coaching staff’s confidence in the backups, especially with Larry Scott having helped that unit last year.
  • Running Back: There’s an underlying assumption that true freshman Ty Chandler is going to come in and be the number two guy. That makes John Kelly’s value even higher. Last year the Vols handled the extended absences of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara really well because Kelly was the number three guy; he turned in 630 yards and five touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry. After getting just three carries in the first five games, he averaged 12 carries per game the rest of the year and had as many as 18 in a single contest. Kelly should be okay with the starter’s workload, but someone will need carries behind him. And should he go down, the Vols will be working with completely unproven talents in an offense with a brand new quarterback.
  • Wide Receiver: This isn’t a quantity issue like tight end, but is similar to the Cam Sutton situation last year. We know Jauan Jennings is good. Redshirt senior Josh Smith has never caught more than 23 passes in a season and is out again this spring due to injury. Tyler Byrd showed a few flashes last year but was inconsistent. There are plenty of recruiting stars after that, but no proof. If Jennings went down, the ceiling on this group and Tennessee’s passing game would diminish significantly.

As Tennessee transitions from the long-term leadership of the class we’ll cheer for two weeks from now in the NFL Draft to a new, young group that will comprise Team 121 and beyond, there are still a few spots where depth is more thin than you’d like. But having such quality at the top of the depth chart last year means we don’t have to write off redshirt freshmen and sophomores just because they weren’t needed just yet. Guys like Marquez Callaway and Carlin Fils-aime may already be the answers to questions we may not ultimately have to worry about. But keeping their best players healthy at each skill position will go a long way in determining the upper limits of Tennessee’s success this fall.