Once again, it’s football time in Tennessee.
The Volunteers kick off their 2022 season on Thursday night, set to open against Ball State in Neyland Stadium. It’s year two for Josh Heupel, who surprised most around the SEC with a solid first season in Knoxville. With plenty of returning production, most expect another step forward for Tennessee.
That journey begins with Mike Neu’s Ball State Cardinals. Neu is tasked with replacing plenty of production from last year’s team, including his quarterback, top receiver and a handful of defensive starters. Ball State went 6-7 last season, which was a disappointment considering what returned to the roster. A good chunk of that group is now gone, as Neu is forced to retool.
“I think Week 1, just in general, you’re never sure exactly what you’re going to get,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said of Ball State. “Some of that can be personnel based. They have guys that graduate, new guys coming in. Where are they going to place them? Schematically, things tend to change in Week 1. Everybody went through a self-scout process from the previous year. They made changes to what they’re doing.”
All of that to say, Ball State is a bit of a mystery with several new faces. The most important one being John Paddock, the Cardinals’ new starting quarterback for this season. The redshirt Junior has yet to play significant snaps to this point in his career, and his first opportunity comes in front of 100,000 people at Neyland Stadium.
Paddock will be the first test for a new-look Tennessee secondary, which kicks off what we’ll be watching for during the opener
The secondary puzzle
Per the depth chart, it’s going to be Trevon Flowers-Jaylen McCollough, with Warren Burrell-Kamal Hadden/Christian Charles-Tamarion McDonald as the starting five in the defensive backfield. How deep will Willie Martinez go after that? Dee Williams and Wesley Walker are also in that picture, and guys like Doneiko Slaughter, De’Shawn Rucker and Brandon Turnage have also been battling.
I’d expect a few different combinations on Thursday night. Now is the time to do that kind of stuff, after all, with Pittsburgh looming next.
Left tackle battle
Gerald Mincey and Jeremiah Crawford have been locked in a battle for the starting job, and we still don’t have a winner to this point. Both guys are going to play on Thursday, as Glen Elarbee tries to come up with a final answer before the big games begin.
“Both of those guys are going to play,” Josh Heupel said Monday. “Somebody will run out with the ones. I haven’t watched (Monday’s) practice yet. Coach Elarbee hasn’t. As we go back and evaluate it, we’ll have a plan to rotate during the course of the ballgame. What percentage of each of them play and who runs out there first, I don’t have an answer to yet.”
Tennessee returns four starters up front, but kicked Darnell Wright back over to the right side, which created the left tackle vacancy. We’ll see how both those guys perform on opening night.
Wide receiver rotation and pecking order
We’ve got Cedric Tillman out wide and Jalin Hyatt in the slot, from there we don’t know too much. The depth chart reads Walker Merrill or Bru McCoy for the remaining outside spot, and it will be interesting to see who gets the nod.
Merrill is entering year two in Josh Heupel’s system, while McCoy has just under a month’s worth of practices so far with the team. Now officially eligible, how comfortable has he gotten in this offense in such a short amount of time?
Beyond that top four, we’ve got Jimmy Calloway, Jimmy Holiday, Ramel Keyton and a few true freshmen. Squirrel White has seemed to lead that freshman trio for the most part, perhaps carving out a small role early on.
“We’d like to play more guys at the wide receiver position,” Heupel said. “Guys that are ready to compete and perform the way that we need them too. Be in the right spaces at the right time. Have a trust with the quarterback. I do feel like we’ll play more guys than we did a year ago at this juncture of the season.”
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET and SEC Network will have the coverage. Per DraftKings Sportsbook, Tennessee has pushed all the way out to a 35 point favorite.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See DraftKings.com/sportsbook for details.