Every year there are a handful of players that can make or break a football team. That statement remains true for the Vols in 2018, despite relatively low expectations in what should be a transition year.
If the Vols are going to be any good and challenge for a bowl bid this season, these five players need to either turn a corner or emerge as playmakers pretty quickly.
OLB Jonathan Kongbo
Kongbo simply has not lived up to the hype to this point in his Tennessee career, but that can be said for many of the highly-touted defensive line recruits that Butch Jones pulled in during his time. Kongbo has one more year to get it going in Knoxville and has a new staff to work with. Where his ultimate position will be has yet to be determined, but Kongbo has said he’s making the move to linebacker. We’ll see if that sticks.
Tennessee desperately needs pass rushers to emerge. It sounds like Kongbo will get his chance to prove himself as a stand-up linebacker on the edge for Pruitt and Kevin Sherrer first. Without much to show for his first two seasons at Tennessee, expectations are admittedly low here. A new staff and a new scheme could be just what the doctor ordered, however.
Kongbo — or really any pass rusher — emerging would take some pressure off of a secondary which is probably going to be Tennessee’s weakest link.
WR Jauan Jennings
It’s been a while since we’ve seen Jennings make an impact on the field for Tennessee. The former high-school quarterback made the transition to receiver upon arrival in Knoxville, turning into an immediate playmaker for the Vols. Jennings was supposed to be the man in the passing game last season, but a wrist injury against Georgia Tech in the opener ended up costing him the rest of his season.
Jennings was then kicked off the team by interim head coach Brady Hoke, only to be brought back by the new staff. Jauan is now back, listed as a redshirt junior on Tennessee’s official website.
Jennings now forms a stout duo with Marquez Callaway, providing whoever wins the quarterback job with two legitimate targets. Assuming Jennings can return healthy and stay in the good graces of the coaching staff, the passing attack has a good shot to take huge steps forward in 2018.
QB Keller Chryst
Chryst has arrived in Knoxville after leaving Stanford with one year of eligibility remaining. He is probably the favorite to land the starting job, despite a strong spring game performance from Jarrett Guarantano. Chryst could provide some stability for Tennessee as they transition to Tyson Helton’s new offensive scheme.
But can Chryst be a true difference maker for the Vols in 2018? That remains to be seen. The Stanford offense sputtered with Chryst under center in 2017, leading to his eventual benching.
As mentioned above, the talent around him isn’t dry. Chryst’s big arm could prove useful in Helton’s offense, considering the amount of downfield attempts we saw from both Guarantano and Will McBride. Above all else, Chryst just needs to take care of the football. Tennessee’s run-first offense should take some pressure off of him, but Chryst will still have a change to take that unit over the top.
CB (?) Alontae Taylor
The cornerback situation remains a gigantic question mark for Tennessee. A lack of depth forced the staff to try some different things on both sides of the ball during the spring. One of those experiments was/is Alontae Taylor, who signed as an athlete but was thought of as a receiver. Taylor moved to cornerback, where he seemed to pick things up quickly.
Taylor got plenty of work with the second team defense during the spring game, flashing some ability to stick in coverage down the field. Alontae may be forced to stick at that position for 2018. With so much up in the air at cornerback, Taylor might just have a shot at legitimate playing time, too.
OL Chance Hall
Hall’s status went from up in the air to cautiously optimistic during the spring. He’s trying to come back from a knee injury that cost him his entire 2017 season, which dealt a huge blow to Tennessee’s depth up front.
The Vols made it through the spring with the bare minimum on the offensive line, but they will get a huge boost in the fall when freshman All-American Trey Smith returns. If Hall can return to his starter status, that would be a nice development for the offense. It’s not clear how all the pieces will fit together, but that’s what fall camp is for.