Think back to August. If you were told Tennessee would start 4-2, you’d take that, right? The answer is absolutely yes. To this point, Josh Heupel’s year one has been a success. It hasn’t been picture perfect, but it was never going to be either.
Back to back blowout SEC wins — beating two programs you should beat at Tennessee — have this fanbase confident for the first time since Jeremy Pruitt’s 2019 win streak. This feels different though. This feels like Tennessee has arrived to the modern era of football, which has been long overdue.
Halfway through year one, let’s give out some grades, shall we?
Running Backs: A
Wide Receivers: B+
Tight Ends: B+
Offensive Line: A
The transformation of the Tennessee offense shouldn’t be minimized, even if the hardest part of the schedule is yet to come. We’re talking about a unit that was virtually hopeless from 2017-2020 — one that was dated schematically and run by a staff that could not develop a quarterback. Outside of a couple of bright moments in 2019, the Pruitt era will always be remembered for the lack of offense.
Which is probably exactly why Tennessee now employs Josh Heupel. As the story goes, Danny White wanted someone that could win quickly while playing an exciting brand of football. Through six games, mission accomplished.
It’s easy to see on the field, but look at the numbers to this point.
2020 Total Offense Rank: 109th
2021 Total Offense Rank: 19th (Through six games)
Tennessee started slowly, due to some struggles out of quarterback Joe Milton, but those were quickly remedied by Hendon Hooker. The veteran quarterback who transferred in from Virginia Tech has been so steady, boosting the run game, intermediate passing game and picking his spots deep.
Hooker has been leaning on a veteran pass catching group that has really settled into the new system. Of course, everything has been powered by a rushing attack that has really turned it on over the last couple of weeks. Tiyon Evans has provided the big plays, while Hooker and Len’Neth Whitehead have shouldered the load with Jabari Small sidelined. The offensive line, even sorting through some key injuries, has been a consistent performer.
Cedric Tillman has been open all year, even if the ball sailed over his head. Velus Jones has snapped back into his play-making self after battling injuries to start the season, while JaVonta Payton has emerged as a downfield threat. Tight ends Jacob Warren and Princeton Fant haven’t been spectacular, but they’ve been consistent chain-movers for Hooker when called upon.
The evidence of potential with this offense was there early in the season, but the execution was not. With Hooker in place, those chances are now being hit for the most part. Is this offense powerful enough to steal a win or two as an underdog down the stretch? I think that’s a real possibility, starting with Ole Miss this weekend.
Defensive Tackles: A
Defensive Ends: C
With all that the offense has done, it’s easy to forget about the defense, which has been better than expected in their own right. It was a struggle for Josh Heupel to find his defensive coordinator, thanks to several key departures in the transfer portal, along with the perceived difficulty of the job paired with Heupel’s fast-paced offense.
However, Tim Banks embraced the role and has been really good to this point. His group has been rock solid for the most part, and they’ve finally started forcing those very important turnovers. After struggling to force a takeaway to open the season, Tennessee now sits at +4 on the year, good for 25th in the country.
The Volunteers rank 45th total defense — a number that nobody saw coming during the offseason. Henry To’o To’o, Quavaris Crouch, Bryce Thompson, Darel Middleton, Deandre Johnson and Key Lawrence all left via the portal. However, this staff did a really nice job on the other side of the portal, plugging depth with guys like Caleb Tremblay, Brandon Turnage, Da’Jon Terry and Juwan Mitchell.
The result? They’re not going to be pitching any shutouts in SEC play, but it’s a respectable unit that plays with plenty of fire and effort. Player development is evident too, with Jeremy Banks, Aaron Beasley and Solon Page really coming on at linebacker. The defensive line as a whole has taken a big step forward under Rodney Garner’s direction.
Tennessee is creating negative plays, averaging 8.7 tackles for loss per game, a number that’s good for third (!!!) in the FBS. They also rank 30th against the run.
The secondary has been less consistent, and they haven’t been helped by a defensive end group that hasn’t been able to consistently get home just yet. Tennessee ranks 73rd against the pass so far, which is a number that is unlikely to improve considering the style of play.
Is Tennessee going to stop Ole Miss, Alabama and Georgia in the coming weeks? Most likely they won’t, but will they create some big plays that puts the offense in position to score quickly and change the game? That’s a possibility, and that’s what we’ve seen happen over the last two weeks. That’s the vision for Josh Heupel, and we’ve really seen it become a reality quickly.