There comes a point in time during the summer stretch where you begin to look ahead to football season. It’s a clean slate—and if you’re like me, this is the time when you usually start talking yourself into being optimistic about the Vols. That’s been tough to do in some years, but I do usually find a way.
Before we get too carried away here, let me be clear. This is probably a five to seven win team. I’ll hold firm on that. However, I’m fairly convinced that this offense is in a pretty good spot to take a big step forward.
Only one way to go from here
To be fair, they can’t get much worse. Butch Jones’ offense absolutely fell apart without Joshua Dobbs playing hero ball from the quarterback position. Without consistent play under center, Tennessee plummeted to 124th (of 129 teams) in total offense in 2017.
Passing the ball was comical at times. Running the ball was a struggle, despite having a couple of talented backs on the roster. The injuries piled up on the offensive line and poor Jarrett Guarantano and Will McBride paid the price for that near the end of the year.
That offensive roster simply wasn’t ready to compete, but that shouldn’t be the case this year.
Butch Jones can’t hurt us anymore
The Butch Jones offense is dead and gone forever, at least for Tennessee. It lives on in an analyst role in Tuscaloosa, for now. Gone are the days of lining up in the gun formation on the goal line. Gone are the telegraphed runs and uninspiring passing concepts. There’s a new show in town and the leader of that show is likely going to bring us back to the basics, at least that’s what we saw in the spring game.
Both Jeremy Pruitt and new offensive coordinator Tyson Helton have promised a run-first attack that will feature explosive plays in the passing game.
“At some point in time, you’ve got to put the ball down and everybody knows you’re running the rock,” Helton said this spring. “That’s what we’re going to do. When it’s time to run it, we’re going to run it, we’re going to stick it up in there and we’re going to be good at it.”
On paper, the offensive roster looks pretty solid.
Receivers Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, Brandon Johnson and Josh Palmer all return. Running back Ty Chandler — who provided us with several flashes in 2017 — is back, along with a bigger, more bruising back in grad-transfer Madre London. The Vols filled a big gap in the offensive line, adding grad-transfer center Brandon Kennedy from Alabama last week. Trey Smith, Chance Hall, Drew Richmond, Marcus Tatum and a handful of newcomers could give Tennessee a respectable group up front.
Of course, all offensive football comes down to the quarterback position. Jarrett Guarantano showed signs of confidence in the spring game, but all eyes are on Stanford grad-transfer Keller Chryst. The rising senior has plenty of experience, which is something the Vols were short on inside the quarterback room.
I don’t think anyone is expecting Chryst to be transcendent, but even having the most average of college football quarterbacks under center would be such a dramatic improvement from 2017. Tennessee’s 2018 offensive success largely rides on his shoulders, but he at least has plenty of talent (which feels a little odd to say) around him to make his job a bit easier.
It’s really easy to write off the 2018 Vols before they even hit the field. Butch Jones left plenty of depth issues on the roster, but Pruitt and his staff have done a fantastic job of finding band-aids. Again, I’m not saying the offense is going to go out and set the world on fire, but it’s not all that unrealistic to believe that they can legitimately be a good unit as early as this season.
How quickly they take to Tyson Helton’s new offense is another factor, but the early returns in the spring game were encouraging. As a Tennessee fan, I’m not sure how you can’t be excited about a new direction for the offense after last season. It’s odd, but I have more confidence in that side of the ball than the defense right now, which still has some major roster issues.
We may look back in the fall at this post and laugh. Maybe I’m just excited for real, I-formation football again. But I do believe Tennessee has some pieces in place. How the new staff utilizes those pieces remains to be seen.
One thing is for sure, though. There’s only one way to go from 2017.