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Progress Report: A look at Tennessee football through four games

Some thoughts on Tennessee through four games.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

We’re a third of the way through Tennessee’s 2023 regular season, and we’ve certainly learned a lot through these four games. It’s a long year, but conclusions have already been drawn about this group — both good and bad.

Let’s talk about it.

Joe Milton has improved, but...

We’ve got to start with No. 7.

It seems like Tennessee fans went from uneasy about Milton to overconfident in Milton (yes, I’m guilty too), all simply because of that Orange Bowl performance. The answer is somewhere in the middle at this point — he is what he is. Milton will have moments where he dazzles and then he’ll have a sequence that makes you question everything. Frankly, that’s always been Joe.

Tennessee desperately needs him to find some sort of consistency, which he really hasn’t done through four games. Joe has had his hot streaks, but the issue has been that he’s also found plenty of cold spells, which once again happened this weekend against UTSA in the third quarter. Milton started white hot and couldn’t miss, then fell completely flat in the third quarter.

We’re all spoiled after watching Hendon Hooker operate this offense. The guy was masterful, and truthfully I didn’t appreciate just how masterful he was until this month. There was a line of thinking that Milton would just slide in and pick up where Hooker left off, but that clearly isn’t going to be the case. This attack is going to have to win much differently, ironically with less of a deep ball and more of a short game and rushing attack.

It’s still early, but I’m pretty comfortable saying this — unfortunately Joe Milton appears to be what we thought he was, not what we all believed he could become. The downfield and intermediate accuracy is better, but still too much of an adventure, and it’s going to leave Tennessee’s overall variance pretty high moving forward.

Hopefully he saves his best performances for the biggest games left on the schedule.

Tennessee needs Cooper Mays back

Ah yes, the mystery of a college football “injury report.” Such a thing does not exist, because coaching staffs don’t have to give you one like the NFL does. That creates speculation, and ultimately lets the rumor mill run wild. It seems to happen every single year, too — remember Cedric Tillman last year?

Cooper Mays has been the mystery injury this year, and Volquest now reports that Mays underwent triple hernia surgery during camp. Mays has not played in the first four games. His presence was absolutely missed in Gainesville, although the Tennessee staff let him travel and dressed him out for the game. Josh Heupel’s comments from that week led everyone to believe that he would be available, but they determined before that game that he would be sidelined once again. The new details from Volquest shine some light on that situation.

Putting the guessing game behind us (hopefully), Tennessee badly needs Mays back in the lineup. Getting his experience back to lead the offensive line as the Volunteers settle into SEC play will be bigger than most realize, especially with Tennessee set to really lean on the run game. Assuming he’s healthy and ready to roll, he’s going to be a massive addition.

The wide receivers aren’t as good as we thought

This has been a stunner to me, and it’s a bit of a two-way street with Milton’s inconsistencies. However, to defend Milton here, these receivers did flat out nothing to help their quarterback in the first couple of games.

Keyton has been shaky, Squirrel hasn’t been that dynamic down the field guy. Bru hasn’t done much outside of the short game, while Thornton appears to still be settling in. Interestingly, Kaleb Webb got some run last week early on in the game, so maybe that’s something to watch.

As much of a struggle as it’s been, this group still has a ton of upside. But it’s time to start showing it.

Dylan Sampson has forced his way onto the field, and deserves more time

I was on the Jaylen Wright train this offseason along with many of you, but I don’t think many considered Dylan Sampson would be threatening to be the best running back on the team. That’s the case being made currently, with Sampson absolutely tearing up lesser competition. Curiously, Sampson didn’t play against Florida, and after Sampson’s social media post following the game, the staff made a clear effort to smooth things over against UTSA.

Sampson is averaging 7.4 yards per carry (27 for 199) to lead the team to this point. Wright is at 6.9 yards per carry, while the veteran Jabari Small is at 6.1. Sampson has found the endzone six total times in just three games played.

Wright and Sampson clearly have the most explosiveness on the roster, and despite Small’s experience, these two should lead the charge going forward.

The Keenan Pili injury looms large

The Tennessee defense appeared to be flat out salty to start the year against Virginia (It’s Virginia, yes I know), but there’s no question that this front seven took a step back without him on the field.

Elijah Herring is a fine player and still growing into the role, but the veteran presence of Pili was certainly missed down in Gainesville against the Gators. Both Herring and Arion Carter will continue to settle in, but getting Pili back for the big ones against Alabama and Georgia would be a big deal. You just hope they can figure things out and hold down the fort against South Carolina and Texas A&M.

Aaron Beasley might be the best player on the team, but he’s only going to be able to do so much. Getting these young players to simply make the plays that they’re supposed to make will be big over the next few weeks.

Tennessee has some dudes on the defensive line

Breaking news, Rodney Garner is really good at his job.

There was plenty of talk coming into the season about how Tennessee would replace Byron Young on the edge, but they’ve been able to do that with ease. James Pearce exploded onto the scene with two quick sacks against Virginia, showing a legitimate fastball with big time explosiveness around the edge.

It also appears that the light has really come on for Tyler Baron, who always seemed to leave you wanting more. He’s given Tennessee all he has through four games, putting up four sacks to start the year.

Tennessee is going to need this defensive line to really step up over the next several weeks after the Volunteers struggled so much with tackling in space against Florida.