The first weekend of November has passed which means we are officially three quarters of the way through Tennessee’s 2023 season, and through all of the ups and downs, they sit at a respectable 7-2 with a lot of bright spots for the future. Let’s rewind throughout the season and look at the high and low points as well as the best and brightest players and moments throughout.
Biggest Surprise: James Pearce Jr.
The hope all offseason with James Pearce Jr. in his sophomore campaign would be that he would flash his potential when given chances, and I think it’s safe to say he’s done much more than that. Pearce does not play every down as Tennessee keeps a good rotation at EDGE, but he’s slowly but surely accrued the second highest snap count among any Vols EDGE defender, behind only Tyler Baron.
In those reps, Pearce has racked up team highs in sacks at 7.0, tackles for loss at 10.0, and his 24.2% pass rush win rate is second highest among power conference defenders, behind only Florida’s Princely Umanmielen, per PFF. With the Vols losing Byron Young, someone was going to be needed to fill that void as a pass rusher, and Pearce has seamlessly slid right in.
Most Improved: Kamal Hadden
It’s very unfortunate that Hadden wasn’t able to get to put together a full season of this production because he was as good as any corner in America after a 2022 campaign that saw him targeted and picked on a lot. A lot of that has to do with adjustments in alignment and coverage — Hadden played 20 fewer snaps in the box and nearly 10% less man to man this season than last (26.7% in ‘22; 17.9% in ‘23) — but more than anything, it mostly falls on Hadden’s development, and he and Tim Banks deserve infinite praise for his improvement.
Take a look at Hadden’s statistical improvements from last season to this season:
- 7 20+ completions allowed in 2022 | 0 in 2023 (+7)
- 75.7 passer rating when targeted in 2022 | 7.0 in 2023 (+68.7)
- 116 yards after catch allowed in 2022 | 55 in 2023 (+66)
- 58.0% completion percentage against in 2022 | 36.4% in 2023 (+21.6%)
No corner in the entirety of the FBS had a lower passer rating when targeted than Hadden’s 7.0 rating this season. For reference, the passer rating of an incomplete pass is 39.6. Targeting Hadden was nearly seven times worse than throwing an incompletion in 2023. A truly spectacular season sadly cut short due to a season-ending shoulder injury.
Best Player: Jaylen Wright
Jaylen Wright, in a just world, will be the first Vol to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards since Jalen Hurd in 2015 and be First Team All-SEC, and frankly, without him this season, Tennessee isn’t a 7-2 football team. Wright has been the lead back in a three-headed running back tandem with Jabari Small and Dylan Sampson that has keyed the offense’s success this season.
Tennessee under Josh Heupel has been known and feared for its passing attack because of just how explosive it is. Though 2023 hasn’t quite been up to standard through the air, Wright, along with Small and Sampson, have made up for it on the ground. Tennessee’s ground attack leads all power conference teams in yards per game, and they’re third in yards per attempt behind Oregon and LSU.
Wright has 110 carries on the season, and his 7.5 yards per carry is the highest mark of any running back in the nation with at least 100 carries. Wright ranks 22nd in the nation with 530 yards after contact, and among the top 25, he’s the only player with under 130 carries, a big reason why he leads the nation with 4.82 yards after contact per attempt. Wright has 30 carries that have gone for 10+ yards, a top 10 mark in the nation. That’s a 27.2% rate for carries that go 10+ yards, the highest in the nation.
Wright doesn’t have the volume of the typical bell cow, but he doesn’t need to in order to be just as effective.
Biggest Disappointment: Joe Milton
As unfortunate as it is, Joe Milton has been a sore spot for this offense in big games for Tennessee all season long. I will keep this brief as I’ve extensively spoken on Milton’s career-long accuracy problems, but with how well Milton played in garbage time all of last season, he had many believing again.
This is not to say Milton has been bad all season, that is far from the case, and he has been substantially better lately, but his accuracy issues, mostly down the field, have led to Heupel having to simplify the offense and take the ball out of Milton’s hands more often.
In the Florida game, after the first drive touchdown, Milton’s inaccuracy plagued the Vols over the next three quarters, resulting in just three points over the next seven drives with three turnovers (one INT) and three punts. By the time the Vols found the end zone, they were down 29-16.
Against Alabama, Milton started off white hot in the first half, but the second half saw him go 12-of-19 for just 95 yards while the Tennessee offense got blanked, blowing a 20-7 halftime lead.
The ground game has been the reliable rock for this offense, but when it hasn’t been up to snuff, Milton hasn’t been able to pick up the weight. Tennessee simply needs more from its quarterback in these big games if they want to start taking the next step.
Most Impressive Performance: Jaylen Wright @ Kentucky
Kentucky could not tackle Jaylen Wright at all.
Wright ran for 120 yards on just 11 carries and a 52-yard first quarter touchdown as he ran all over Lexington that night. It was just an overall efficient, explosive masterclass from the Tennessee offense, but Wright’s performance stands as the most impressive, and it could have been even better. Wright got injured in this game and didn’t see another carry beyond that point, but he was as dominant as we’ve seen a Vols running back be in a rivalry game in quite some time.
Most Impactful Transfer: Omarr Norman-Lott
This was a tough one as the multiple transfers brought in have also brought mixed results, but the player who I think has provided the most well-rounded productivity to this Tennessee team is Omar Norman-Lott.
The Arizona State transfer has been a force in the trenches for a Tennessee defense that’s posted the best run defense in the SEC both on a yards per game and yards per carry basis. I also want to give praise to Gabe Jeudy-Lally for his efforts this season as well, especially against the run. He has been as advertised as a hard-nose corner not afraid to stick his nose in against the run with some aggressive tendencies that can get him beat in coverage that have shown up at times.
Overall, the defensive transfers have been of much more benefit to the team than those on the offensive side of the ball, and Omarr Norman-Lott has been the best of the bunch.
Biggest Takeaway of 2023 so far: Josh Heupel is going to win a lot at Tennessee
I had Tennessee pegged at 8-4 before the season, and I had distinct worries about Joe Milton. I’m an Ohio boy, and I was born and raised on Ohio State football, so I was very familiar with Joe Milton before he made his way down to Knoxville. I was so curious to see just how he’d fare more than anything, and though Milton landed on the ‘Most Disappointing’ thus far in 2023, it’s been Heupel’s ability to adapt to what Milton has been doing well and tailoring the offense towards those strengths and away from his glaring weaknesses that has me feeling great about the future of this program.
For starters, Heupel has completely shifted the approach of the offense this season. The big plays are still there in the passing game, but between Milton’s struggles to hit receivers down the field and the overall struggle from this receiving corps to create separation, Heupel has really leaned on Tennessee’s running game to set up more open throws for Milton.
What the ground game has opened up in particular is the screen game for Tennessee. While Tennessee’s play action rate is down about 10% from last season, its screen usage is up 13.6%, a substantial amount. The reasons for this are pretty simple. The ground game is primarily between the tackles, and with how successful they’ve found their ground attack, it’s helped utilize the speed of the receivers more at the line of scrimmage in the screen game as an extension of the run game. It’s been a fantastic adjustment I didn’t know Heupel had in him because he’d never had to.
For reference, Heupel is a Mike Leach disciple. Leach disciples, much like Leach, stick to what they scheme and don’t waver from it at all, for better or worse (see: Dave Aranda, Kliff Kingsbury with the Cardinals, Dana Holgorsen, Lincoln Riley retaining Alex Grinch for years who is also on the Leach tree). To see Heupel kind of break away from the mold with his tendency breaking is a great sign of a coach who not only sees the field as it goes ahead of time incredibly well, but also a coach who is thoroughly in touch with his personnel.
The second reason is more intangible, but I think equally as important, if not more so: leadership.
Thus far in Heupel’s tenure, he’s had tremendous leadership from the quarterback position and that is something that comes from Heupel’s relationship to the position which leads to a strong personal connection with his signal caller. Hendon Hooker is obviously revered by teammate and fan alike for his time at Tennessee, and Joe Milton has followed in his footsteps as the guy everyone seeks for advice and feeds off of, even when he’s struggling.
This makes me extremely hopeful for Tennessee’s future because as the defense has turned it around this season overall, it’s hard to see a future where Tennessee won’t ever have a legit guy at quarterback as long as Heupel is there. With Nico as the heir apparent, the QB play will only get better, and everyone raved about his maturity and leadership before he even got on campus. The future is very bright in Knoxville, and a lot of that credit goes to Josh Heupel.