We’re now under a week out. Tennessee will open their 2022 season at home against Ball State on Thursday night, getting a tune-up opportunity before the real fun begins. The Volunteers are expected to take another step forward this season, coming off of a 7-6 campaign in Josh Heupel’s first year.
Now with just a few days left, let’s check in on some reasons for confidence and some reasons for concern.
Confidence: Hendon Hooker and Cedric Tillman
Look, enough has been said of these two. Tennessee is very fortunate to be bringing both guys back this season, and each should help lead this Volunteer offense to new heights once again. Year two in Josh Heupel’s system for both — coming off of what they just did in 2021? That’s an exciting thought.
Hooker has become the unquestioned leader of this team and his efficient play is the key to Tennessee’s success this fall. If he can simply replicated what he did last season, the Vols will be just fine.
Confidence: Rodney Garner’s defensive line
Matthew Butler’s exit is a big deal for Tennessee, but the Vols have perhaps the best man in the country to figure out how to replace him. Garner transformed this room in year one to help create a big number of tackles for loss, which at one time led the country mid-season. It’s now on him to find and develop the next few great Tennessee defensive lineman.
According to buzz out of camp, Tyler Baron and Byron Young, two edge rushers, have take big steps forward. Tennessee needs them to perform — perhaps more than anyone not named Hendon Hooker.
Omari Thomas, LaTrell Bumphus, Elijah Simmons, Da’Jon Terry and a few others will be in the rotation at tackle. I’m fascinated to see who emerges out of that group, but confident that a couple will with Garner pulling the strings.
Confidence: Josh Heupel’s offense
Heupel proved last season that his offense can keep Tennessee in nearly any game with any team. The Volunteers took Alabama to the fourth quarter, and probably should have beaten top-ten-finisher Ole Miss and ACC Champ Pittsburgh. Once Hooker took over, Tennessee was one of the best offenses in the country — a completely unfathomable sentence to type just 12 months ago.
The question becomes this: how does Heupel keep things fresh for year two? He’s got a season on tape now in SEC play. People know all about Hooker and Tillman. How does he change things up?
Of course he and Alex Golesh will add wrinkles here and there, but the secret to the success is the tempo. It’s almost similar to that of a triple option look, it’s a bit of an equalizer. For that reason, even with some new faces at receiver, I’m confident Tennessee will repeat the success of 2021 on the offensive side of the ball.
Concern: The secondary puzzle
The top question entering 2022 is the secondary, without question. Veterans Trevon Flower and Jaylen McCollough will man the safety spots, and we expect up-and-down veteran Warren Burrell to man a corner spot. That’s about all we know for sure.
Kamal Hadden, Christian Charles, Dee Williams and Brandon Turnage are options for the other corner position, while Tamarion McDonald and Wesley Walker are handling STAR duties.
The opener against Ball State should see plenty of different combos as Willie Martinez tries to find each man’s best fit. That will be the top thing I’ll personally be watching on Thursday night.
Concern: Lack of depth at running back
On paper, Jabari Small — Jaylen Wright — Dylan Sampson — Justin Williams-Thomas is a fine depth chart. However, there’s literally nothing on scholarship behind those four, and the final two are true freshman just trying to get comfortable inside of the offense.
Jaylen Wright has already been dealing with injuries throughout camp, and we saw Jabari miss time in a couple of a different spots last season. That’s some razor thin depth after losing Len’Neth Whitehead and then Lyn-J Dixon.
Hendon Hooker handled a ton of responsibility in the run game last season and that may be the case once again, though I’m sure the staff would prefer not to go that route. They may not have a choice.
A couple of injuries in the backfield and things could get pretty dicey for the Volunteers.
It’s not enough to play a full SEC schedule that includes Alabama and Georgia. Tennessee somehow managed to schedule Pittsburgh at their peak, facing them last season as an ACC Championship winning program. This season they return the favor, hitting the road to face the top 20 Panthers.
That road test against a really good Pittsburgh team will tell us a lot, and then two weeks later against Florida at home will tell us even more.
Tennessee gets a bye week after Florida, and then draws a road trip to Death Valley to take on LSU. Alabama in Knoxville follows.
So that’s a run of Florida-@LSU-Alabama to take us through mid October. A quick breather against UT-Martin gets us to Kentucky at home, and then a road trip to Athens to face the defending National Champion Georgia Bulldogs.
Look, this is nothing new. Tennessee sees this every single year. But drawing at LSU out of the West pool all while taking a road trip to suddenly top 20 Pittsburgh isn’t exactly optimal. That all results in the fifth toughest schedule in the nation, per ESPN FPI.
If Tennessee is going to do any damage this fall, they’re certainly going to have to earn it.