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What to be confident about, what to worry about before SEC play

Observations and thoughts through 3 games.

NCAA Football: Akron at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Volunteers have a perfect 3-0 record heading into SEC play. In this conference, you have to bank the wins when you can. There’s very few easy weeks, and you have to be able to adjust on the fly. Tennessee is hoping for a good start to their conference play with a win over the Florida Gators this Saturday. This game is never easy, but Tennessee has a lot of reasons to feel confident heading into the matchup.

After three games, we can start to make some conclusions about what Tennessee brings to the table. We already know their offensive philosophy and what they want to do on defense. From there, we can see how close they are to achieving their ideal form. We can also see which players are starting to shine...and which players need to start improving.

So before this Saturday starts off the gauntlet, we decided to break down what the team does well, and also some questions it needs to answer.

What to feel confident about

The defensive line is legit

I think we can say that the Tennessee defensive line has proven itself in the first few games. They may not be an elite unit, but they clearly have enough talent and depth to anchor the defense. The interior especially has a good group of options, led by emerging star Omari Thomas. We’ve also seen some solid contributions from guys like Bryson Eason and Roman Harrison, and even true freshman like Joshua Josephs.

On the edge, Byron Young is living up to his billing as one of the top pass rushers in the league. He gives offensive tackles a handful on every play. But I might argue that the bigger emergence has been Tyler Baron on the other side. He isn’t usually tasked with being the primary pass rusher, but Baron has been a wall on the other side of the line. He does a pretty good job of containing offenses and simply not being pushed back at the line of scrimmage.

If it was just the defensive line that played to expectations, I’d be a bit weary of the front seven heading into conference play. But it’s because of this next guy that I’m buying Tennessee’s defense.

Aaron Beasley has taken the next step

This guy is my selection for defensive MVP of the first few games. Tennessee was hoping that Beasley could improve on a strong 2021 season and round out the linebacker corps with Jeremy Banks (we will talk about him later). He flashed a lot in 2021, but he still got exploited by some offenses. The staff has been granted their wish.

Aaron Beasley is a brute force in the middle, and he has a knack for the ball. Wherever the play is headed, you can find Beasley. We’ve known since he was a recruit that he loved contact—he put the hurt on guys in high school. It has finally translated to the college level, where Beasley has been the enforcer on more than a few plays. He’s also violent enough that they send him on some pass rushing duties to try and pressure quarterbacks. This is something that could seriously alter how Tennessee’s defense goes about their job as the year progresses. I’m not sure if he will continue to play at this level, but I am pretty confident that he will continue to solidify his spot.

Offensive firepower remains intact

The point totals and various statistics would indicate a clear answer here. But at the same time, there’s been some worries about Tennessee’s offense finding themselves in rough patches. We saw it pop up in the Pittsburgh game, especially at the beginning of the contest. Obviously, Tennessee’s offense will not be the unstoppable juggernaut throughout all of SEC play.

But I will say—after watching the games back (including a full rewatch of the Pittsburgh game) I think some of the worries are overblown. There have been plenty of plays where Tennessee had a receiver wide open; the result was either a bad throw by Hendon Hooker, or a mental mistake by a receiver.

It would be one thing if the offense was simply getting shut down. But the rewatch made it clear that there is still room for improvement. That will likely come with just more reps as the season goes on. There is a small tendency to latch on to Cedric Tillman, who hasn’t been as sharp as we may have expected. But again, on more than a few of the missed connections, Tillman was actually open.

To add onto this, the Volunteers have three options that could be a No. 1 receiver at most schools in the country. It seems odd to say after they lost Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton—but this Tennessee wide receiver room might be even more talented.

What to worry about

Jeremy Banks has not taken the next step (although he can still make an impact)

This was something I always had a little skepticism about. Through his five years at Tennessee, Jeremy Banks has shown himself to be a promising athlete and a hard hitter...but susceptible to receiver mismatches. Banks loves to fly around and is guaranteed to make a good play basically every game. But that has been the exact same case for the last few years. What has also maintained is that Banks can get picked on in coverage, and seems to react slowly to what a quarterback is giving him.

I don’t think Banks is a bad linebacker. In fact, I’d argue he’s above average. But the expectation of Tennessee was not above average. The expectation was that Banks would put it all together for 2022 and become the all-around stud linebacker that Tennessee needs. Through three games, it has not materialized. In fact, you might look to Aaron Beasley as being the closer of the two.

I still think Banks is your best option going forward, and he can bring you a level of physicality that your defense needs. But I would also recognize that there are real flaws in his game which you will have to be able to respond to.

No standouts in the secondary

This is probably the most worrying, and one of those issues that you basically have to recruit yourself out of. Right now, Tennessee does not have a good secondary. They’ve got solid starters at safety with Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCollough. Beyond that is a log jam at cornerback, where no one has really proven themselves yet. This has not been exploited much this year, since Tennessee has not really faced any elite receivers. The best passing game they faced was Pittsburgh with Kedon Slovis, but Slovis left the game early with an injury. The defensive results prior to his departure were not inspiring.

Two slivers of hope do exist. The first is Tamarion McDonald at the STAR position. It’s the perfect use of his natural skillset, and he’s already made some highlight plays this season. The second is Kamal Hadden. He looks like a quality athlete who can progress into a CB1. The key for him will simply be more reps in the system.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, cornerback Warren Burrell seems to have hit his ceiling. The fact that he plays a lot probably indicates Tennessee doesn’t trust the guys behind him.

Struggles on the interior

Unfortunately, Tennessee’s offensive line has not been able to spring the huge inside runs that we witnessed last year. It’s a bit of a conundrum, because the Volunteers returned starting center Cooper Mays and starters at guard Javontez Spraggins and Jerome Carvin. The offensive line seems to have improved a bit on pass protection, but the same cannot be said for the run blocking. In fact, if you run the numbers, Tennessee’s yards per carry in the first three games of this season has gone down compared to last year (by about half a yard). That’s not necessarily a huge drop off, but it is concerning. Mainly because this offensive line was supposed to be one of the most experienced in the league. But rather than build on progress, they seem to have regressed in this area.

Granted, some of this is also by design. Tennessee wants to air it out, and they’re also trying to see which of the running backs is the most trustworthy. Tennessee has a somewhat shallow running back room as of now, so it could also be a mere trust issue. Coaches don’t want to put the pressure on a true freshman running back.

We’re about to find out if Tennessee has been “holding back” to start the season. The Volunteers can still have a great year with Hooker and their receivers. But if they have similar rushing efforts as the Pittsburgh game, that could cost them a win or two.