The Tennessee Volunteers are just a couple of weeks away from kicking off the 2021 season. It’s an exciting time, even if the upcoming season is full of questions.
The offense shouldn’t be a question in terms of the product on the field, however. We know that Josh Heupel is going to bring a high-flying style to Knoxville. But your best players have to be on the field in order to put up points.
So, who are the most indispensable Vols on offense? Let’s take a look and find out.
3. OL Cade Mays
There was so much excitement surrounding Mays’ 2020 transfer. Many viewed him as the guy who would complete Tennessee’s offensive line and give the program the front five it so desperately needed over the last decade.
2020 wasn’t Mays’ best season, but there was a lot going on. The NCAA didn’t grant him eligibility until after the first game of the season and COVID limited him to just two spring practices. He never had a chance to participate in a full, padded practice. And then since bad news always comes in threes, Mays got hurt and missed the last two games of the season.
But 2020 is over with. Mays decided to finish his career in Knoxville instead of declare for the draft and in return, the Vols get an elite run blocker and someone who can play both guard and tackle. Mays was named to the 2021 Preseason All-SEC first team and reportedly shed about 15-20 pounds during the offseason. That’s great news for the senior offensive lineman, who will need to improve his pass protection in an offense that’s going to throw the ball all over the place.
Mays is easily the Vols’ best offensive lineman. And it sounds like the team is going to play him at tackle, which makes him even more important to the team. Especially when you consider the recent injury to K’Rojhn Calbert.
The offensive line could potentially sink or swim based off Mays’ play. But there’s one thing that’s certain: Mays has to be available -and play well- in 2021.
2. RB Tiyon Evans
Evans was the top JUCO running back prospect in the country when he decided to transfer to Tennessee. His arrival added immediate depth to a very inexperienced group.
And when I say “very inexperienced”, I mean it. The Vols currently have about six running backs -not including Evans- on the roster. Those six backs have a combined 43 carries for 206 yards so far in their careers. All six are sophomores or younger, as well.
Evans registered 61 carries for 538 yards and nine touchdowns during his freshman year at Hutchinson CC, alone. He also threw in four receptions for 43 yards and a touchdown. Granted, that’s Evans’ only year of experience thanks to COVID shutting down his 2020 season, but those numbers are obviously superior to that of his teammates.
It’s not often a JUCO transfer coming off a season in which they did not play is considered one of the most important players on the roster, but that’s where we are with this running back group.
Evans is the perfect back for this type of offense. He has excellent speed and fluidity and is very hard to take down in the open field. The Vols are going to spread defenses out like butter on a roll, so they’ll need someone who is electric with the ball in their hands and can make plays in open space. That’s all Evans, all day long.
He’s also very effective as a kick returner, adding another dimension to his skill set. In all, Evans is a playmaker who needs to be on the field as much as possible.
1. QB Joe Milton III
I get it, Harrison Bailey is still on the roster, so the Vols aren’t totally screwed if Milton goes down. Especially if Bailey can play like he did during the Orange and White game back in March.
But there’s a reason Milton is practicing with the first string and there’s a reason this coaching staff fought to bring him in. They obviously think he’s their best shot at running the offense and when a coaching staff picks a quarterback, it automatically makes them one of the most -if not the most- important players on the team.
Milton has a ridiculous arm and can make all the throws required of him. That arm can get him into trouble at times, but Heupel’s offense will have layers that Milton can take advantage of if need be. He doesn’t always have to make the big throw in this offense. But whether or not Milton decides to take the shorter gains over the potentially bigger ones will be the big question.
Milton also represents the first big decision by the coaching staff. Heupel and co. are pushing their chips to the middle of the Milton table. What if he doesn’t play well? Even worse: What if he just absolutely sucks? That will serve as an indictment for this staff and could possibly make the 2021 season even bumpier then it already appears to be.
Don’t forget that Georgia and Florida wanted Milton at one point. So there is plenty to like about his game. How he puts it together in 2021 will determine how far the Vols go on offense.