There aren’t many positive takeaways from the 2020 season. The Vols took a major step back in terms of the program’s development and the result was embarrassing.
But if the Vols want to avoid another season like the one they just endured, then they need to identify the players on the roster that can help turn the program around the most.
Whether it be 2021 or 2023, we are going to look at the core players on Tennessee’s current roster and take a look at how they can help the offense get better over the next few years.
Which three players can Tennessee build its offense around?
1) RB Eric Gray
Odds are Gray will go to the NFL at the end of his junior year, but that doesn’t mean Tennessee shouldn’t completely tailor its offense around Gray and his skillset.
I’m not joking. You usually don’t want to put all of your eggs in one basket, but it’s pretty clear that the Vols will need to emphasize the ground game in 2021 when you consider Tennessee’s current situation at quarterback, receiver, and offensive line.
That’s not a bad thing when you have a running back like Gray on your roster. He was easily Tennessee’s best and most consistent player on offense in 2020. He has a very good combination of size, speed, power, elusiveness, and athleticism that you look for in a three-down back.
Gray finished with the sixth-most rushing yards in the SEC and averaged close to 5.0 yards per carry. He probably would’ve had an even better year if the Vols weren’t so dysfunctional at quarterback.
The Vols have two 4-star running backs lined up in the 2021 class, but Gray has proven that he can carry the load and be “the guy” in the backfield. It would be smart of Tennessee to use him in that capacity in 2021, as well.
2) WR Jalin Hyatt
Hyatt’s final stat line of 20 receptions for 276 yards and two touchdowns may not blow anyone away, but he can be an effective deep threat and that cropped up a few times this year. Fellow wideout Josh Palmer was probably the only other player who could provide the explosive plays that Hyatt provided in the eight games he played.
It’s clear that the soon-to-be sophomore will the be guy who can take the top off the defense for Tennessee’s offense. His ability to make defenders miss in the open field will come in handy when/if the Vols want to run screens, jet sweeps, and other plays to help take advantage of aggressive SEC defenses.
The Vols have their deep threat. Now they just have to get a quarterback that can hit him on a regular basis and some guys to take advantage of defenses in the underneath areas.
3) QB Harrison Bailey
I know. It’s hard to evaluate any quarterback under this coaching staff and there’s a good chance incoming freshman Kaidon Salter will make a hard run at the starting gig during the offseason. But for now, the coaches need to build this roster around what Bailey does best. He should have the leg up based off of the fact that there is tape of him in a live game and he’s been in the offense for a year.
Bailey did a few things well this year, but he definitely still needs work. The good thing is that there is plenty to work with. He showed that he has the talent to make it work in the SEC and the hope is that 2021 will feature a normal offseason. There’s no telling how much that hurt Bailey’s development coming into 2020.
But it could be this coaching staff that’s hurting his development more than anything. The worst part about that is we won’t know until it’s too late. Regardless, Bailey should be a vital piece of this team moving forward.