You can count the time until Tennessee football returns in mere hours. Clear your Thursday night schedule and get prepared to watch your Volunteers take on Ball State at 7 p.m. EST. It should be an exciting season for Tennessee, as they hope to build on a surprisingly solid first year of the Josh Heupel era. Expect a lot of points.
We’ve given our record predictions in a separate piece. For this article, we are going even further and making predictions about which players will stand out this season. From MVPs, to breakouts, and more. There’s some obvious selections...but there’s plenty that remains to be seen about where this team goes to replace some of its playmakers. There’s also a lot of hype surrounding certain players and what their next step will entail. We’ll look back at the end of the season and see just how many of these came to pass.
Clint: QB Hendon Hooker
The most obvious choice on the list. Hooker returns to Tennessee after an eye-catching 3,565 yard and 36 touchdown season. He has some of his favorite weapons returning and another year in the system. It’s fair to say that if Tennessee wants to reach the ceiling of what they can do, it will all run through Hooker.
Terry: QB Hendon Hooker
Hooker is the only acceptable answer here. We saw what this offense looked like without him — not great! His arm is the most important part of Josh Heupel’s attack, making the whole thing tick. His quick pickup of the offense flipped on the light bulb one year ago for the Volunteers. Another full offseason of work with this staff should have him even better in 2022.
Clint: DE Byron Young
Young made quite the impact in his first year on campus. Despite an eligibility issue that caused him to miss the first game of the season, Young still finished tied for the team high in sacks (5.5) and had the second most tackles of any lineman.
It became obvious that Young was the best pass rusher on the roster and was an immediate injection of talent on the line. The Volunteers need defensive improvement for 2022, and a star defensive end can provide that in spades. Young is poised to assume that role. If Young can consistently get to the quarterback and cause havoc in the back field, it will relieve tons of pressure from the rest of the defense.
Terry: LB Jeremy Banks
This is one of the better stories in college football, as Jeremy Banks has completely turned his college football career around. From arriving as a running back, to being kicked off of the team, to working his way back — Banks is now a key leader for the defense. He led the team in tackles by a wide margin last season, and should do so once again.
Most Impactful Transfer
Clint: T Gerald Mincey
This was the hardest selection to make. None of Tennessee’s transfers are going to positions where they have an unchallenged path to starting. I considered someone like Bru McCoy, since he has a ton of talent and plays a position where Tennessee loves to rotate. Ultimately however, I am going to go with Florida transfer Gerald Mincey. The depth chart release confirmed the chatter from preseason camp, which said that Mincey was locked in a tight battle for a starting spot with senior Jeremiah Crawford. Mincey has enough versatility that even if he doesn’t end up locking down the starting job, he’s going to be used a ton throughout the year. He raises the floor of the line and gives you (at the very least) a sixth man you can trust.
Terry: WR Bru McCoy
A month ago I would have said Wesley Walker, but the staff really seems to be high on Tamarion McDonald at the STAR position. I’m sure Walker will play plenty, but now with McCoy cleared, there’s a better opportunity for him to make a big impact playing opposite of Cedric Tillman. I’m interested to see how quickly McCoy gets comfortable, but he can fill an immediate need for Tennessee in a pretty large role, potentially.
We really haven’t seen McCoy at full song just yet in his college career, but his 6-3, 220+ frame should offer physicality for Tennessee, giving the Volunteers another threat on the perimeter.
Most Impactful Freshman
Clint: RB Justin Williams-Thomas
The recent news of a quick departure by Lyn-J Dixon solidifies my pick here. I already felt that Justin Williams-Thomas was a prime candidate to contribute early. He is a very well-rounded running back, which is a position where newcomers can shine as freshmen. The Volunteers will utilize plenty of talent in the backfield, and Williams-Thomas arguably has the most raw talent of anyone on roster. I expect him to notch a few hundred yards on the ground this year.
Terry: RB Dylan Sampson
Not sure anyone really saw Sampson emerging like he did in camp, but here we are. It sure seems like Sampson has passed Justin Williams-Thomas on the depth chart following a strong month. And now with the depth issue at running back, both Sampson and Williams-Thomas are going to see plenty of work.
From how the staff is talking, I’ll go Sampson from how he’s quickly picked up the offense. His speed and explosiveness should offer Tennessee a little something different in the backfield.
Breakout Year (Non-Freshman)
Clint: WR Jalin Hyatt
I was between Hyatt and one of the cornerbacks for this selection. Ultimately, I went with Hyatt because of the flashes he showed last season. Everyone has known that Hyatt has game-breaking speed and could turn into the deep threat that he was projected to be since high school. It’s simply a matter of putting it all together. Now that he is an upperclassman who has finally had a consistent offseason within a single system, Hyatt is primed to break out.
The Volunteers losing Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton means that there are spots open for receivers to step up. Helping the cause is the fact that the No. 1 receiver, Cedric Tillman, will be returning. So the focus won’t be on any inexperienced receiver to have the lion’s share. This should theoretically help Hyatt transition into becoming a starting wide receiver.
Terry: WR Jalin Hyatt
There’s certainly been quite a bit of hype surrounding Hyatt this offseason. The staff has sung his praises at every opportunity, saying he’s changed his practice/study habits and added some weight to his slender frame. The opportunities will certainly be there with Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton gone. It’s time for Hyatt to emerge, and it really sounds like that has already started to happen.
Tennessee Wins 10+ Games If...
Clint: The defense gets to “average”
I’m not asking for the world here. Tennessee’s defense last year really started to crumble towards the end of the season, after the bulk of SEC play. They finished on a somewhat high note in the regular season, with great performances against South Alabama and Vanderbilt. But those are two teams that you can beat up on and make your numbers look better than they might actually be. Before the South Alabama game, Tennessee’s defense was closer to 70th in FEI, for instance.
Some of that was injuries. They especially affected Tennessee’s secondary, which we all witnessed in the bowl game against Purdue. But overall, a general lack of depth (not related to injuries) and far too conservative of playcalling made the defense a real weakness.
Heading into 2022, I think I speak for everyone when I say: I am confident that the offense will score a ton of points. To help them out, Tennessee’s defense needs to be acceptable. They don’t need the 1939 unit to trot back out there. They do need an improved defense that can get off the field on third down however. If Tennessee’s defense can make a jump from, let’s say, the 70th ranked defense to the 45th ranked defense— that could net you a couple extra victories alone. Easier said than done obviously.
Terry: September goes well...
Clint is spot on with his analysis of the defense. That unit can take Tennessee from decent to very good, no doubt. If Byron Young and Tyler Baron become what they could be, look out.
However, I’ll take a simpler approach — perhaps not the way the question was intended to be answered.
Tennessee has to navigate two pivotal moments early in the season, travelling to top 20 Pittsburgh and then hosting Florida to wrap up the month. Those two games are going to tell us quite a bit about this team. Can the Volunteers handle Pitt’s strong trench game on the road? Can they get past the mental hurdle of beating Florida? If they can, they’ll be 4-0 entering a road matchup against LSU with an open week ahead to prepare.
A 4-0 start gives you a pretty decent path to 9-3, leaving the door open to spring an upset to get to 10-2. All of that is possible with Hendon Hooker running the show.