The Tennessee football season kicks off in just a matter of days. Year two under Jeremy Pruitt will see plenty on changes, featuring 16 returning starters and a new direction on offense. Here’s a quick preview of what you can expect from the Vols in 2019.
1) Who is Tennessee’s most important player on offense this season?
Without question, the runaway most important player is quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. Now a junior, Guarantano is finally in a spot to succeed after playing his first two seasons in — well — sub-optimal conditions.
Guarantano got his first taste of experience in the final year of Butch Jones, playing behind an offensive line that had been devastated by injuries. His next season was under a new offensive coordinator in Tyson Helton, but those same issues up front made things difficult for Guarantano.
Now with a few more shots of talent up front and a veteran SEC play-caller, Guarantano is a popular pick around the country to take a step or two forward. Jim Chaney takes over the offense, returning to Knoxville after stops at Arkansas, Pitt and Georgia. While it’s another new offense for Guarantano — his fourth in just four years — the concepts remain similar. The returns, at least coming from Jarrett himself, have been positive so far.
The redshirt junior passer isn’t lacking weapons, returning Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, Josh Palmer, Dominick Wood-Anderson and Ty Chandler. Even with just average offensive line play, the Tennessee offense would take a giant leap forward in 2019.
For Jarrett, aggression is the name of the game. Attacking down the field with his big-bodied receivers is something that Tennessee needs to do more of. Guarantano was praised for his lack of turnovers last year, but that was aided by a very conservative approach by Helton. Will Chaney turn Guarantano loose? Let’s hope so.
2) Who is Tennessee’s most important player on defense this season?
There are probably three or four acceptable answers here, but for me, this goes to Darrell Taylor. The Tennessee defense gets a boost this year after starting two freshmen at cornerback last season. New defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley should be able to lean on that secondary a little more than Jeremy Pruitt was able to in 2018. But in order for the whole defense to really tick, somebody has to rush the passer. On this roster, the obvious man to do that is Taylor.
Taylor racked up four sacks against Kentucky and three against Georgia. He got another against Vanderbilt to wrap up his total season production at eight for the year — a respectable number — but Tennessee would like a little more consistency.
With Taylor being the only proven pass rusher on the roster, Ansley needs Taylor to be that game-wrecker off the edge. If Taylor takes a step forward in 2019, the Tennessee defense could be a top 25 group in the country. For reference, they finished 2018 ranked 49th in total defense.
3) What should be the biggest change for the Volunteers between last year and this year?
Jim Chaney’s offense is the easy answer here, but we’ll go in a different direction. I’ve already touched on Tennessee having a more experienced secondary, but let’s expand that a bit.
Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson return, along with the addition of freshman Warren Burrell, who has turned heads in camp. At the safety spot, Nigel Warrior returns, along with Trevon Flowers and Theo Jackson. All of these guys come back a year wiser, earning more trust of the coaches.
What will that do? It should allow Derrick Ansley to fire up the blitz packages with confidence as he trusts his corners in man coverage. The Volunteers are going to have to get exotic without many established pass rushers on the roster — experience at cornerback will allow them to do just that.
4) What is the most important game on Tennessee’s schedule, and why?
That answer may sound odd at first, but think about what that game means. The Gamecocks have won three in a row against Tennessee and that game kicks off a vital stretch to end the season. It comes after the Florida-Georgia-Alabama portion of the schedule, kicking off a stretch of very winnable games for the Vols.
The South Carolina matchup could set the tone ahead of the UAB, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt games. These are the ones that Tennessee has to start winning consistently to climb out of the SEC East cellar.
5) Prediction: Tennessee’s Win/Loss record and postseason destination?
7-5, Liberty Bowl
Tennessee was able to beat a really good Kentucky team last season while also surprising Auburn, but were blown out against Missouri and Vanderbilt. Tennessee’s November schedule is where the Vols have to make ground, so the arrow needs to be pointing the in right direction by late October.
Jeremy Pruitt won five games in year one. With a softer non-conference slate, there’s really no reason he can’t get to at least six wins in 2019. I think he gets there win a win to spare.