Tennessee is still riding high after a six game winning streak to close 2019, along with landing a top ten recruiting class over the winter. An 8-5 season is something nobody saw coming after a 2-5 start, which included a loss to Georgia State. But Jeremy Pruitt rebounded in a big way.
Now expectations are rising for the program as Tennessee is set to enter 2020 as a fringe top 25 program. So let’s take a broad look at the roster. What are you confident in? What concerns you? What’s the biggest question mark?
Below, we’ll try and categorize those.
Potential All-American guard Trey Smith is back. Sixth-year senior Brandon Kennedy is back. Five-star sophomores Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright now have a year’s worth of experience. Oh — and Tennessee added former five-star prospect Cade Mays to the mix after two seasons at Georgia.
Not much else needs to be said. This group is the strongest on the team and they need to be dominant in 2020.
Eric Gray legitimately stole the keys to the Tennessee backfield against Vanderbilt last season. He proved his worth again a month later in the Gator Bowl, powering the Tennessee offense late to a comeback win. There’s no reason as to why Gray won’t be the guy in 2020, but the Volunteers are deep here with experience.
Tim Jordan and Ty Chandler have each been there and done that for Tennessee over the last two seasons. They’ll remain in the mix, likely along with linebacker Quavaris Crouch as the goal line back.
Running behind that offensive line, the Tennessee rushing attack should be the strength of this offense.
Remember when Tennessee started three true freshmen against Will Grier and West Virginia? That was ugly.
That same group is now entering year three. Bryce Thompson has turned himself into a future NFL draft pick and a true CB1 for Jeremy Pruitt and Derrick Ansley. Alontae Taylor is back, and Baylen Buchanan will attempt a redo of his senior season after a spine issue sidelined him in 2019. Kenneth George, Warren Burrell and Shawn Shamburger will all be used in a variety of ways, giving Tennessee a deep secondary group.
Nigel Warrior is gone, but Trevon Flowers, Jaylen McCollough and Theo Jackson are ready to step up at safety.
Jarrett Guarantano enters year two under Jim Chaney, looking to finally make some gains in the fifth year of his career at Tennessee. But I’m in the camp that Guarantano is what he is at this point. The maddeningly frustrating passer was benched last season, only to come back in relief and actually lead Tennessee to a handful of wins down the stretch.
His play in the clutch can’t be ignored, but neither can his painfully slow first halves. Tennessee desperately needs the Guarantano we saw against Missouri. They need the guy that woke up late in the Gator Bowl. They don’t need the quarterback that seemingly slept through the Vanderbilt, BYU, Georgia State and Florida contests.
There’s more competition than ever behind Guarantano, but with each passing day that football is on hold, it’s looking more and more like he’s going to be the guy under center for the Volunteers in 2020.
One reason you can be even more pessimistic about Guarantano is the fact that he won’t be throwing to Marquez Callaway or Jauan Jennings this year. Josh Palmer has proven to be a difference maker in his own right, but he’s yet to be the No. 1 option in the offense. That’s going to happen this year, and Tennessee needs him to show out.
The issue really begins behind Palmer. Talent isn’t an issue, but experience certainly is. Brandon Johnson returns as a senior after redshirting last season, bringing some experience to the table. But after him, it’s guys like Ramel Keyton, Cedric Tillman and a bunch of youth.
Transfers Velus Jones and Deangelo Gibbs are wildcards in this room and could emerge on the depth chart as well. Right now though, there are just too many unknowns.
Gone is Darrell Taylor, meaning Tennessee now desperately needs a new edge rusher to emerge. The Volunteers were able to generate plenty of pressure last year utilizing blitz packages, but there comes a time when you’ve got to be able to get home with just your four man front.
Kivon Bennett and Deandre Johnson are the logical choices to step up, but neither have been able to put up big production just yet. The long term solution comes deeper on the depth chart, likely in the form of freshmen Tyler Baron and Morven Joseph. The four-star duo are likely fits on the edge for Tennessee and could crack the rotation from day one.
Henry To’o To’o alone makes this a position of strength for Tennessee, but he’s going to have to step up and become the quarterback of the defense. That’s probably the least of Jeremy Pruitt’s worries. But someone will have to step in and play beside him. The obvious choice is Quavaris Crouch, who flashed in a limited fashion last season. J.J. Peterson could also be in the mix, along with potentially up to four true freshmen.
It’s a talented group, but outside of To’o To’o, there isn’t much experience to be found. This is a group that will likely get better as the season goes on.