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Eight thoughts ahead of Tennessee’s 2021 opener

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Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The start of the 2021 season is here. After going through spring and fall camps, the depth chart has been set and the Josh Heupel era is ready to roll. Bowling Green is first up for Tennessee — a game that should allow some forgiveness to the Volunteers as they continue to find their footing in a new system.

Before the season begins, here are eight thoughts I have on this team as Tennessee begins yet another rebuild project.

Tennessee will be fine, maybe even legitimately good, offensively

Josh Heupel was brought in mainly to accomplish one thing — bring the Tennessee offense into the modern era. His fast-paced spread offense, a product of the old Art Briles system at Baylor, will instantly transform the look of this football program. The pro-style looks are gone, and the offense will now resemble what you’ve grown accustomed to seeing around the rest of the college football landscape.

There’s nothing too complex about it. Heupel’s secret sauce is tempo and splits, using the entire field and simply taking what the defense gives you.

“What makes us unique is the tempo—I don’t know that anyone plays at the tempo we do,” offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said. “The goal is to have as many possessions as you can—because every time you have the ball you have the chance to score. What also makes us unique is the width of our splits, our guys using the entire width of the field.”

The spread looks will open up the box for the run game, while creating opportunities to attack down the field with the right looks. Without elite talent, this unique approach should at least keep Tennessee competitive offensively right away.

Maybe I’m sipping too much of the Kool-Aid, but I think this side of the ball gets up to speed rather quickly.

Velus Jones Jr. and Jalin Hyatt are in for big seasons

When I think about who could benefit from the offensive scheme change, my mind goes to Jones and Hyatt, for different reasons. First off, Heupel and Golesh have stressed a need to stretch the field. That tells me that Joe Milton is probably the best quarterback for them, and Jalin Hyatt is going to be an obvious beneficiary. The sophomore receiver has legitimate 4.3 speed, flashing a few times as a freshman. Expect him to routinely take the top off of defenses, while opening things up underneath.

In steps Velus Jones Jr. He should benefit from the quick hit passing game, catching bubbles, slants and other short routes as the staff tries to get him in space with the ball in his hands. Jones will also work some down the field, just as we saw in the Orange and White Game.

Can Joe Milton put Michigan behind him?

Milton was named the starter for Tennessee on Monday, even after arriving after the spring. The gifted passer has been here before — just about ten months ago actually — when he was named the starter for the Wolverines. That marriage didn’t go well though, as Milton was benched after a handful of games.

Why should it be any different in Knoxville? For one, it’s a totally different offense that should ease some of his decisions. It’s an offense that operates with pace and is designed to be quarterback friendly. This staff’s track record with quarterbacks speaks for itself, and Milton is hoping to be the next in line.

“Joe’s grasp of our offense in a short amount of time, his growth during the middle portion of training and his acceleration in what we are doing with his physical attributes and decision making led us to put the ball in his hands for the first game,” Josh Heupel explained.

There are no questions about his physical talent, but can he do the other things — the touch passes, the checks at the line of scrimmage, the overall accuracy. He’s got a second chance here to kickstart his college career, and quite honestly he couldn’t find a more friendly spot to do it in.

What happens with Harrison Bailey and Hendon Hooker?

Will the staff try to keep these two involved early on in the cupcake games? That’s certainly a possibility against Bowling Green to start things out. Heupel did not name a backup quarterback, so it’s unclear what the pecking order is here.

“Both of them have handled it in a really positive way,” Heupel said on Monday. “I know that they know we believe in them. I think that is a big part of being able to handle that information. They have continued to get opportunities to grow in practice and they will believe in who they are and what they do in their future here.”

One other thing to keep in mind is the commitment of Tayven Jackson, who will enter the picture next season. The four-star quarterback prospect might just force Bailey or Hooker out, as we’ve seen all over college football over the last five seasons.

We’ve got a long way to go before we get to those decisions, as Milton must prove it on gameday first.

Depth concerns on the offensive line

The starting five looks pretty solid — Darnell Wright, Jerome Carvin, Cooper Mays, Javontez Spraggins and Cade Mays. Dayne Davis has been a pleasant surprise, but what’s behind those six? It’s a mixed bag that probably starts with RJ Perry, and then goes to guys like Jeremiah Crawford, Ollie Lane and Jackson Lampley.

Tennessee can’t afford too many hits to this group after the loss of K’Rojhn Calbert earlier in camp. Depth here is a big issue — a couple of injuries could really trip the Vols up.

Can Byron Young deliver on the hype?

The Vols haven’t had an impactful pass rusher since Darrell Taylor, but that has a chance to change this year. By all accounts, Young has had an outstanding spring and fall camp, emerging as a real threat off of the edge. Tennessee badly needs a guy like that to be able to get home and win one on one matchups.

If Young can produce pressure consistently, I’d feel a lot better about Tim Banks’ group this fall. Tyler Baron and Roman Harrison are in the same boat. A defensive coordinator’s job gets significantly easier if he can get pressure with sending four or five, so this group needs to take a step forward here under new coaching.

Veteran secondary must be a strength

Yes, Bryce Thompson is gone, but Tennessee is still left with Alontae Taylor, Warren Burrell, Kenneth George, Theo Jackson, Jaylen McCollough and Trevon Flowers. Those guys have played a ton of football at this point, and they really need to be a strength for the Volunteers.

Additionally, guys like Doneiko Slaughter, along with transfer cornerbacks Kamal Hadden and Brandon Turnage will provide a good amount of depth. They’re in a new system this year, but these vets need to step up. As mentioned above, Banks is hoping they get some more help from emerging pass rushers like Young and Baron to make everything a little easier.

Rodney Garner’s group will be much improved

Sometimes, losing a couple players isn’t exactly a bad thing. Maybe that’s what has happened here. Defensive line coach Rodney Garner isn’t for everyone — he’s going to stay on you until he feels like he’s getting everything out of you. Likely for that reason, the defensive line room was turned upside down this offseason.

The end result is a group of veterans, along with some younger players with upside. Matthew Butler, LaTrell Bumphus, Ja’Quain Blakely and Aubrey Solomon remain, while Omari Thomas, Elijah Simmons and Dominic Bailey look to find consistent playing time. Transfers Da’Jon Terry and Caleb Tremblay should have significant roles as well in the rotation.

Tennessee already shook things up here by announcing Butler, Simmons and Blakely as starters up front, so expect a totally new look on Thursday night. The defensive line underwhelmed last year under direct coaching from Jeremy Pruitt. Now they’ve got one of the SEC’s best position coaches leading the charge, and it should start to show.

Tennessee and Bowling Green will kickoff the 2021 season at 8 p.m. ET on SEC Network.