Another season of Tennessee football will kick off on Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium. It will be the second season under Jeremy Pruitt, the man picked by Phillip Fulmer to revitalize the football program.
Pruitt took his lumps in 2018, but seems poised to at least take a small step forward this season with added talent and a ton of returning starters.
Unlike last year, we don’t get a high profile opener. Instead, we get Georgia State — an opportunity to feel out this team a little bit before the heavy-hitters come later in the year. With Tennessee sitting as 26 point favorites in this one, here’s what I need to see to make it a successful day.
1. Offensive line dominance
We know Tennessee is highly likely to play multiple combinations on Saturday in the opener. Both Jeremy Pruitt and offensive line coach Will Friend have proclaimed that “nine or ten guys” deserve to play. Will we see that on Saturday? Probably. Will we see that against BYU or Florida? Highly doubt it.
Georgia State and Chattanooga should give Tennessee a chance to tinker with some options up front to see what gels. With two five-star freshmen tackles in the mix, those games will give both Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright a chance to get their feet under them before the SEC slate ramps up.
Against Georgia State, there’s no reason that this group shouldn’t dominate up front — regardless of who is playing. The Panthers ranked 124th last year against the run. As Austin Burlage pointed out earlier in the week, they’re pretty small up front. This is a spot where Tennessee should move the ball at will. If they don’t, that’s a major concern heading into a key BYU matchup and with Florida looming.
2. Secondary competence without Bryce Thompson or Baylen Buchanan
What might have been the strongest part of this roster is suddenly a gigantic question mark for Tennessee. The Volunteers will be without senior Baylen Buchanan on Saturday as he continues to deal with a spine issue. Bryce Thompson’s situation still remains cloudy as he serves the first game of his indefinite suspension.
So what’s left? Sophomore Alontae Taylor and true freshman Warren Burrell will get the start at cornerback. Burrell was set to contribute regardless of the Thompson situation after a strong camp, but he now becomes a vital piece of the defense right off the bat.
Shawn Shamburger is the likely starter at the ‘star’ spot, filling in for Buchanan. Nigel Warrior and Trevon Flowers will get the go at the safety spots, likely rotating with Theo Jackson.
Tennessee can definitely operate with that secondary — the trick will be figuring out the depth. Kenneth George Jr. will get some run at cornerback, but after that, it’s pretty murky. Cheyenne Labruzza and Tyus Fields have been working with the safeties, but each could fill in at corner if needed. Brandon Davis and Kenney Solomon might get some time as well.
Freshman receiver Jerrod Means has flipped to the defensive side of the ball to make the numbers work. Pruitt indicated this week that his likely longterm spot is at receiver, but that gives you an idea of the depth situation right now in the secondary.
Expect some lapses and frustrating moments on Saturday as Tennessee tries to figure out what they’ve got behind the starters.
3. An aggressive Jarrett Guarantano
Guarantano has been praised for his ability to take care of the football in a bad situation last year, but played in a very conservative scheme in 2018. To a certain point, I get it. Tyson Helton didn’t exactly have the offensive line he needed to succeed as a play-caller last year, so he dialed up a conservative scheme in an attempt to keep Guarantano upright.
Helton has since moved on, which allowed Jim Chaney to enter the picture. The veteran offensive coordinator is now tasked with fixing an offense that has ranked in the bottom ten of the FBS in production for two years in a row. The main part of that equation is getting Guarantano up to speed in his offense.
For me, I want to see Jarrett grip it and rip it. Tennessee has the receivers, tight ends and running backs to have a successful passing attack. We just don’t know about the offensive line or Guarantano just yet.
Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer are players that allow you to be aggressive down the field. We saw that in the Auburn matchup last year — we need to see more of it in 2019.