A 1-2 start to the season has many Tennessee fans reevaluating this team before it even hits the bulk of its SEC schedule. As part of our ongoing look at the 2019 Tennessee Volunteers, we will be breaking down the season into quarters and giving a review of where the team stands from a macro standpoint, as well as individual players who have shined or otherwise disappointed.
Areas of Success
Offensive Line Progress
The Georgia State game made it look like this was about to once again be the worst unit on the team. But their turnaround against a good BYU defense sent everyone back to the film room. The result is a unit where the number improvement is finally meeting the eye test.
Here are the categories of offensive line performance according to Football Outsiders. Listed next to them are the rankings of Tennessee’s 2019 line. In parentheses is their ranking from 2018.
Line Yards: 37 (127)
Standard Down Line Yards: 22 (126)
Passing Down Line Yards: 84 (121)
Opportunity Rate: 25 (119)
Power Success Rate: 74 (123)
Stuff Rate: 66 (130)
Sack Rate: 69 (106)
Standard Downs Sack Rate: 96 (112)
Passing Downs Sack Rate: 30 (55)
That amount of improvement is genuinely impressive, especially when you consider that Tennessee has not had a consistent starting five. They’re still working on getting the best possible combination on the field. The line against Chattanooga looked very promising—from left tackle to right tackle, it was: Wanya Morris, Trey Smith, Brandon Kennedy, Darnell Wright, and K’Rojhn Calbert. I’d bet money that line will be the most common over the next few games.
Defensive Front Seven Progress
Another unit that looked terrifying during the Georgia State game once again turned it around over the next couple games. Their lack of big plays against Chattanooga was somewhat disappointing, but they were able to shut down the run game and force the Mocs to try and beat them through the air (which obviously didn’t happen).
The Volunteers also did a good job of containing Zach Wilson of BYU, and the Cougars struggled all game trying to find a consistent rushing attack. It seems that the line simply had a fluke game against GSU, because their performance against a much better BYU team suggests that they do have the talent and size to be quite good in this regard. Aubrey Solomon is head and shoulders above the rest of the group, though others like Greg Emerson and Matthew Butler have flashed.
Tennessee is still looking for a pass rush that isn’t totally reliant on linebackers however. This is where the defensive line still has a lot to prove. They need someone that can reliably collapse the pocket and force quarterbacks into making their decisions.
Consistency from Top Players
The good news for Tennessee is that all of the players we thought would be the best are actually playing like they’re the best*. Jauan Jennings, Aubrey Solomon, Daniel Bituli, Henry To’oto’o, and Ty Chandler were trendy picks for top players in 2019. So far, all those players have performed very well in games and showed why they actually were trendy picks. It helps a coaching staff to know that they have consistent play from certain positions.
*With one notable exception. We explain further down.
Areas of Concern
2019 was supposed to start at either 2-1 or 3-0 for Jeremy Pruitt. A 1-2 or 0-3 start was inconceivable. The Georgia State loss left pretty much all of us speechless. What else can you say? No matter how this season finishes out, that loss will stick out like a sore thumb. Imagine if the Volunteers finish 5-7 and the Georgia State “gimme” game could have sent them bowling. Heck, imagine if they finish 8-4 and the Georgia State “gimme” game looks like a complete fluke that unnecessarily hurt program prestige.
Combined with the heartbreaking BYU loss, there are still questions about where this team is at mentally with everything that has happened. The Chattanooga win might turn out to be the most rewarding FCS victory the program has ever accomplished—this team looked mentally broken before they shut them out in a 45-0 victory.
If Tennessee loses to Florida—in a game where the staff has once again put a disproportionate amount of focus—how will they respond? Because at that point you are 1-3 going into the Georgia game, and that might destroy you in multiple ways.
We’re about to see just how much Pruitt has changed the culture.
From an on-field standpoint, this is downright baffling. Tennessee’s defense, for whatever reason, has glaring alignment issues. It was most notable in the Georgia State game where it happened multiple times, allowing them to run rampant on a confused front. The BYU game had a couple of blips but otherwise looked a lot better. Then the same alignment issues came back against Chattanooga, with a couple of big plays from the Mocs being sprung thanks to wide open lanes. These lapses might be few and far between—but in football, these are unacceptable. One wide open hole can turn into a touchdown very quickly.
It’s one thing to get juked or outran by a superior athlete. It is a completely different problem when you can’t put your players in the right spots before a play even begins. That is almost solely coaching, and it’s astounding that Pruitt of all people is struggling with it.
Inability to Form Offensive Identity
The good news about this concern is that it can change rapidly as the season goes on. Still, after three games, it’s not encouraging that Tennessee’s offense is still figuring out what it wants to be. I think it’s obvious that Chaney is trying to make it a power run first type of offense—the game plan against Chattanooga showed that he wants the offensive line and the running backs to get comfortable with running it until the wheels lose their tread (and hope victory comes before that happens). It’s a lot of speculation on how the offensive line will be able to handle that against tougher SEC defenses.
Yet there was also a lot of discussion about what Guarantano’s share of the production would be. They tried to get him more involved against BYU, but he missed multiple wide open receivers and proved unreliable. That doesn’t bode well for a road trip to Gainesville, against a defense that caused all sorts of problems for Guarantano in 2018. Will Tennessee come out and try to run it down Florida’s throat? Or will they play a little mind game and “unleash” Guarantano and the receivers? There’s no easy answer.
RB Ty Chandler
We advise readers to knock on wood after reading the following statement. Ty Chandler is currently on his way to a career year.
Sure, the sample size is not big enough to draw all that many conclusions. But Chandler’s breakout performance against BYU has given us confidence that he is exactly the type of running back we all thought he could become: a shifty, explosive back that forces the defense to account for him every time he is on the field. Chandler is currently at 250 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 5.9 yards per carry. He’s already 40 percent of the way to last year’s total.
It goes beyond the numbers. Chandler looks feisty out there, to the point where his running style is allowing him to plow into bigger defenders and gain extra yardage. He is determined to become the best player on the offense. So far, it looks like it.
WR Jauan Jennings
The fifth year senior is making the most of his time on Rocky Top. Statistically, he hasn’t shown this much production in such a limited timeframe since 2016. Jennings is the leading receiver in all categories, with the most receptions (12), yards (208), touchdowns (4), and highest average (17.3) on the team. It’s amazing what staying healthy can do for a player.
Yet arguably more important than the numbers is Jennings’ attitude. He is by far one of the biggest leaders on a team that is desperate for them. He gives his all every snap on the field and never gets down after a bad play. Even after the Georgia State loss, Jennings was not pouting, and instead vowing to get better. Jennings is a terrific locker room presence and will be dearly missed after this year.
K Brent Cimaglia
Cimaglia has yet to miss a kicking attempt on either field goals or extra points (knock on wood). He’s 8/8 on the former and 11/11 on the latter. That is the definition of “automatic”. While you never want a game to be decided by your special teams, Tennessee has to feel pretty good about what they have at kicker. He can put points on the board even after teh offense might stall out.
QB Jarrett Guarantano
Well, the raging offseason debate might get settled after the first three games. No one has liked what Guarantano brought to the table in the first three games. Not the coaches, not the fans, not even the man himself. If you looked purely at his stats, you would see a quarterback posting career highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passing efficiency rating.
But when you look at the actual tape, you find out that Guarantano is both leaving points on the field and limiting what the offense is capable of. His missed chances in the BYU game were downright unacceptable and helped lead to a contest that was much closer than it ever should have been.
The message sent in the Chattanooga contest was clear. By limiting Guarantano’s chances and letting Brian Maurer and JT Shrout get significant reps, Tennessee signaled that they will consider any option to help the passing game improve.
S Nigel Warrior
Warrior have may slightly redeemed himself in the most recent contest. But it’s still hard to give a player too much credit after one good game against a clearly overmatched FCS opponent.
The truth is that Warrior doesn’t bring much at the safety position right now. In coverage, he gets taken advantage of way too easily for someone who is athletically gifted as him. As a run defender, he is still seemingly not comfortable. Warrior has had four years to live up to his potential and he simply isn’t doing it. Right now there’s an argument that you might as well play Jaylen McCollough and see what you have in terms of a true safety.
Warrior needs to turn it around and fast. If not, we could see him riding the bench later on in the year.
CB Alontae Taylor
This is by far the biggest surprise of the 2019 players to this point. Alontae Taylor was a stud in 2018 and earned multiple Player of the Week honors as a true freshman. Most expected him to take another step and become an unquestioned top-10 corner in the conference.
He’s gone the opposite direction. Taylor has been downright average and sometimes even bad to start the 2019 season. While many will point towards his meltdown at the end of the BYU game, the problems are deeper than a singular game. Taylor was benched to start the Chattanooga contest and only came back in later on. That’s more than just a performance issue—coaches won’t sit a player like Taylor for simply making a mistake.
The only hope is that Taylor is just getting over a sophomore slump. The depth options of Kenneth George and Warren Burrell simply will not cut it in the bulk of an SEC schedule. Granted, Burrell is a true freshman and will get better with more experience, but right now he is being thrown into the fire and being told to fight his way out.