For the first time after two straight seasons of no activity, the NFL decided to draft players from the University of Tennessee. The Vols sent six former contributors to the big leagues, with three of the selections coming in the first three rounds.
Now that these players are gone, who will step up and replace their production? A positive from the slew of injuries last season - possibly the one and only positive - is that at some point, players at every position were able to get on the field and gain valuable experience.
However, that does not mean they will be able to step up right away.
The Vols made several strides on offense last season, at times breaking school records along the way. Not only did the Vols average 36.4 points a game, Tennessee hung 38 on Florida - the most points since 1970 - scored 34 on Georgia, and racked up almost 700 yards of offense against Texas A&M.
Hot diggity, that is some pretty impressive stuff.
Adding extra context to the situation is the fact that a lot of that production came at the most critical spots on offense as well. And not only did the Vols lose a ton of talent, they also lost the oft-criticized architect of the offense in Mike DeBord.
Regardless of the situation, these five players must step up and fill the void on offense in order for UT to have a shot at playing in Atlanta come December:
1. Jauan Jennings, WR, Junior
I know, I know - who the hell is going to replace Josh Dobbs? Well, since Butch and Co. are keeping things tighter than Nick Saban without his oatmeal pie, I can’t really evaluate the need for production at the quarterback position other than a simple mention. When the time comes that a starter is named, that player will obviously become that most important player on offense.
In the meantime, Jauan Jennings is number one on this list.
Believe me, it was a tough call choosing between Jennings or John Kelly. Both will be absolutely critical to the success of whomever is under center for the Vols. However, because of the lack of experience and depth due to the current Josh Smith situation, wide receiver now becomes the top area on offense in need of answers.
Jennings more than tripled his production during the 2016 season in comparison to 2015. A better understanding of the offense (and his position change) combined with his physical play enabled him to become one of the Vols top playmakers in 2016.
The Vols have a total of 13 receivers on the team, but only five recorded receptions in 2016 and all five players combined for a total of 37 receptions in 2016 - three less than Jennings had all season.
How crucial will it be for whomever starts at quarterback to have a bonafide, dependable, and dominating number one receiver to throw to? The obvious answer is absolutely crucial.
The Vols will need plenty of this from Jennings in 2017:
Jennings must continue to use his physical presence and improve his route running in order to keep growing in 2017. If he can do that, it will allow the other receivers to improve, and the future signal-caller of the Vols as well.
2. John Kelly, RB, Junior
The former three-star recruit from Michigan tore onto the scene last season once Jalen Hurd quit the team. Kelly is known throughout the program as a leader and an absolute bruiser at tailback, which is something this team desperately needs.
Kelly led all running backs on the team in rushing yards in 2016 despite receiving just six carries through the first five weeks of the season and finishing with less than 100 total carries for the entire year. He also led the entire team with a dominating 6.4 YPC. He ranked second only to Dobbs in total rushing yards.
Here is a sample of what Kelly brings to the table:
The physical back needs to improve his pass-catching abilities, however, the arrival of talented freshman Ty Chandler will help ease some of the burden in that area of Kelly’s development.
Just like with Jennings, Kelly’s presence is an absolute area of need when it comes to the success of Tennessee’s new quarterback. Just like having a reliable target to throw to, either Dormady or Guarantano will need someone that can take the load off of their shoulders when the game is tight.
3. Trey Smith, OL, True Freshman
Easily one of Tennessee’s biggest in-state and overall recruits in recent years, Trey Smith comes in as the messiah for the Vols offensive line woes of recent seasons.
No pressure, right?
Whether it’s the lack of depth or talent - it was a combination of both in the beginning - the offensive line has been the biggest pain for Butch Jones since he took over.
Well, after four seasons of subpar play, it seems that Jones has his best front five yet. UT finally has quality starters and a good range of depth and if Smith can play up to expectations, the Vols will have added a major talent to an offensive line that has a combined 111 career starts.
Look for Smith to come in and add a nasty streak to this line with his size and physical play. Hopefully, it will allow for the best unit we have had since the early 2000s.
4. Ethan Wolf, TE, Senior
A familiar name to Vols fans, Wolf has made both memorable and not-so-memorable plays during his career with UT. Seen as underutilized with DeBord, the gigantic target caught a career-low 21 passes last season even though he played in all thirteen games.
Enter Larry Scott, the new offensive coordinator for UT.
Not only does Scott have significant coaching experience from his time at the University of Miami, but he was also Wolf’s position coach a year ago. I think it is safe to say that Wolf will have a much bigger role in the offense in 2017.
At 6-6 245lbs, Wolf can go up and snatch the ball out of the air, he can make the tough catches in traffic, and he can be a very useful blocker in the run game. If he can eliminate the drops he had a season ago then he could easily be just the fifth Vols tight end drafted in the past 45 years.
Wolf’s size and strength allows him to make the tough catches over the middle as shown below:
Having the experienced senior as a safety valve is a necessity for a young quarterback, and Wolf’s athleticism could make the Vols offense more potent than people expect.
5. Tyler Byrd, WR, Sophomore
With the uncertainty that is currently surrounding Josh Smith, all eyes have turned to the barren pit that is UT’s receiving corps. As I mentioned earlier, there is almost little to no production or experience behind Jennings and Smith, which is what makes Byrd all the more valuable.
Of all the receivers on the Vols roster, Byrd produced more during his freshman year than most of the other receivers have their entire careers. But, Byrd will have some big shoes to fill with the absence of Josh Malone.
Not only did Josh Malone take almost 1,000 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns with him when he decided to enter the NFL draft, he took away a key cog of the Vols offense - the deep threat.
Byrd has the speed and shiftiness to get open down the field, however he lacks the ideal size to make the tough catches in traffic. He adds value to the return game as well, something that will need a boost with the departure of Alvin Kamara and Evan Berry recovering from injury.
Byrd was able to get on the field as a true freshman and showed flashes of potential last year, which is an impressive feat to accomplish in the SEC. He needs to continue to develop in order for the Vols to be able to stretch the field, especially with a potential gun-slinger like Dormady at the helm.
These five players are absolutely integral to UT’s 2017 season. Check back in later for the five most indispensable players on defense.