There’s not too many open position battles for Tennessee football as they head into the 2020 season. They had a couple of departures in the offseason to the NFL draft, but overall the Volunteers didn’t lose much. The starters during last year’s end-of-season winning streak did a good job vying for their positions heading into next season.
That doesn’t mean there are no surprises, however. Teams are constantly shuffling players around and getting the best talent on the field. Tennessee finally has enough talent that they can experiment with certain players and packages.
Pretty much everyone knows the starters, and a lot know the backups. But what about the darkhorses? The players that may have played sparingly in 2019 (or only for certain stretches) that have a genuine chance at grabbing a starting role?
We’ve gone through every position and identified the player who has a shot at surprising everybody. Some of it is based on results, a lot of is based on conjecture. But if any of these come to pass...don’t say we didn’t give you a heads up.
QB: Brian Maurer
You didn’t forget about him, did you?
While the focus is on Jarrett Guarantano and his late season revival as starter, the truth is he didn’t play well enough to lock it down for 2020. That much is evident by the hype surrounding Harrison Bailey, who is routinely discussed as potentially taking over as a true freshman.
Brian Maurer finds himself squarely in the competition because of his results when replacing Guarantano. No, his stats were not good, but anyone who watched the games could tell that Maurer provided a missing spark. He made plenty of mistakes, but he was willing to take risks that Guarantano has not taken in three years of starting.
That spark is why I’m not willing to dismiss Maurer just yet. If Guarantano doesn’t do well as starter, but they don’t feel that Bailey is ready, what is the problem with starting Maurer? If he makes too many mistakes then you can just invest in the future with Bailey, but he deserves a shot.
RB: Len’Neth Whitehead
This projection has gained steam with the update that Tim Jordan is no longer with the team. That leaves over 100 touches up for grabs, if last season’s usage was any indication. Eric Gray and Ty Chandler will receive the most opportunities, but Tennessee absolutely needs a third back for rotation.
Could it be Whitehead? Of the three incoming freshman backs, he is the most favorably viewed by recruiting services. Part of that is based on his linebacker projection, but Whitehead has insisted he will start at running back.
It makes sense if Tennessee wants a true power back. Whitehead packs a punch as a runner, with great balance and legs that don’t stop churning. Tennessee used Quavaris Crouch in that role previously, yet Whitehead’s preference to stay on the offense might give him the edge.
WR: Deangelo Gibbs
It’s easy to forget about players when they have to sit out for a year after transferring. Make no mistake though, Gibbs will have a chance at playing a lot with Tennessee’s wide open receiver room. Initially we were going to give one of the freshman receivers the nod here, but they’ve all been thoroughly discussed.
The odd man out is Gibbs. He’s talented enough to receive hype as a downfield threat, even if the circumstances surrounding his transfer from Georgia clouded the move. Terry Lambert had a much more in depth piece about Gibbs and his potential here, so click the link if you want to know why Gibbs is not to be discounted as an option heading into 2020.
OL: Jahmir Johnson
It wasn’t too long ago when Jahmir Johnson was Tennessee’s best starting offensive lineman. A Trey Smith injury may have prompted that title, but Johnson was legitimately good. Not in a “Best of a bad bunch” good, but a “Looks like a cornerstone of the line” good.
Unfortunately for Johnson, a mix of untimely injuries and quality freshman additions meant that he got relegated to a rotation player. Entering 2020, that’s still where Johnson finds himself. Yet it would be foolish to dismiss him outright. He’s got a versatility that has allowed him to play both guard and tackle at a decent level. He might not beat out someone like Wanya Morris or Cade Mays, but Johnson will be one of the first options off the bench in case of injury or certain playcalls.
When fully healthy, Johnson has a mix of experience and talent that every staff would covet.
DL: Kurott Garland
The depth at this position makes it very difficult to choose a dark horse. There’s a list of six players who got major playing time, and another couple who received more than negligible amount of reps. We chose Garland because of his momentum at the end of 2019. Garland played in all 13 games, but didn’t start at nose tackle until the final four.
The results were very encouraging. Arguably his best game was against Indiana, where he recorded five tackles and was generally a nuisance for their entire offense. Keep in mind that Garland was just a redshirt freshman and was competing for playing time with some very talented teammates. The staff inserting him as starter to close out the season should indicate how they feel he is coming along.
If Garland keeps improving, he could be right up there with Emmit Gooden, Greg Emerson, and Aubrey Solomon as a key contributor on the line.
LB: Morven Joseph
We’ve been high on Joseph as a pass rusher ever since we covered him during the 2020 recruiting cycle. His burst is something that can’t be taught, and his production in high school indicates a player with a knack for disruption.
Darrell Taylor leaving means that Tennessee’s pass rush has taken a hit, without a clear successor to take the reigns. Why not Joseph? While he needs to fill out a bit more, Joseph is athletic enough that he can step in immediately at outside linebacker and at least give the staff something to work with. It will probably be limited to certain packages and downs, meaning Joseph won’t run away with a starting job. It’s still nice to have that asset on your defense.
CB: Warren Burrell
Once Bryce Thompson came back from suspension, Burrell was relegated to the role he was always intended to play—a third or fourth option, who would come off the bench in certain situations without forcing him into the fire. Unfortunately that came after he had already been thrown into said fire.
You’d be forgiven if you aren’t high on Burrell after last season, and if you’re more excited for Keshawn Lawrence. Keep in mind however that the staff was very high on Burrell coming out of high school, and the plan was never for him to start immediately as a true freshman. Now that the rough patch is behind him, any player with starting experience is inevitably going to be more comfortable with the staff than a true freshman.
Given Tennessee’s relative lack of depth at the position, Burrell will play early and often. While the starting corner spots are locked up with Thompson and Alontae Taylor, there’s less certainty behind them. Burrell can step up and become the reliable cornerback they believed he could be.
S: Tyus Fields
As long as Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCollough are healthy, there’s little chance that Fields takes over a starting role. But that’s not as solid as it sounds—Flowers has had both his 2018 and 2019 seasons abbreviated due to injury. The departure of Nigel Warrior means that if Flowers goes down again, Tennessee needs a fresh face to take over.
The top two options would then be Theo Jackson or Tyus Fields. Jackson is a fine option that provides his own strengths, and he’s received plenty of reps. But Fields has more versatility and provides the team with more upside than Jackson. That doesn’t mean he’s a shoe-in to capitalize on that versatility, it just means that he has an advantage in that area over the more veteran option.
Fields’ development was slowed by a foot injury last season. Now that he’s fully healthy, he has an entire fall camp to prove himself and provide a bit more youth in the secondary.