This is the second installment of our most indispensable series. Be sure to check out the defensive side of the ball here.
Now that we’ve looked at the defensive side of the ball, it’s time to flip over to offense.
Tennessee’s offense has some questions. Who will play quarterback? Will there be an even split in the backfield? Who will step up at receiver? Does anyone know what the tight ends are truly capable of? Will Cade Mays be eligible to play by the time the season starts?
See what I mean? There are questions abound.
Regardless of the questions, few can question how important the following guys will be to the offense in 2020. Let’s find out who they are.
3. G Trey Smith
Man, I can’t believe it, but the Vols have a legit offensive line for the first time in a very, very long time.
The unit is stocked with both talent and experience. The starting quintet of Smith, Cade Mays, Brandon Kennedy, Wanya Morris, and Darnell Wright have over 80 combined starts between them. All five players are former four-star recruits or higher, as well.
But even with all of the talent and all of the experience, it’s pretty clear that it wouldn’t be the same unit without Smith.
His story is well-documented among Vols fans and those who follow college football in general. The fact that he’s come back twice from a serious medical issue has already given him plenty of clout, but it’s also his on-field play that resonates with teammates.
Smith is the leader of this offensive line. His return to play out the final year of his career speaks volumes to the kind of
kid man he is and shows how much he really cares about this football program.
He’ll be a preseason All-American and a first-round draft pick in 2021 if all goes according to plan, so it’s clear why the Vols need him on the field in 2020.
2. RB Eric Gray
Big things are expected for Gray in 2020 and there’s plenty to be excited about. He was recently named to the Doak Walker Award Preseason Watch List, which is the award given to the nation’s best running back.
I’m a huge fan of Ty Chandler, but Gray showed a bit more consistency, especially toward the end of the year. His 25-carry performance against the Vanderbilt Commodores in the regular season finale and his MVP-performance against the Indiana Hoosiers in the Gator Bowl showed that he is ready to take the next step in 2020.
The coaching staff feels that way, too, even if Ty Chandler is still on the team. Both players bring a different dynamic to the field, however, Gray is more of a wear-you-down type guy (who can still go the distance), whereas Chandler is a home-run threat.
Gray became even more important when Tim Jordan was kicked off the team a few months ago. Jordan was very serviceable as the third back, but Gray will certainly be expected to assume some of Jordan’s work as the season goes on.
I’m a big fan of Chandler’s but he didn’t really show that he can be the guy at running back last year. He had issues with fumbles, pass protection, and was dinged up a couple of times. I think he’d be better off as a complement to Gray.
With an improving offensive line, 2020 should be a big year for Gray and will give him an excellent opportunity to demonstrate why he means so much to the offense.
1. WR Josh Palmer
You were probably expecting whomever plays quarterback to be here, right? Well, that’s just the thing: We have no idea who will play quarterback on opening weekend in 2020.
Aside from that future (and practically guaranteed) debate, when you look at this offense, it’s clear that the receiving corps is looking a bit thin after the departures of Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway.
But that’s OK, because the Vols have an extremely talented and experienced junior in Palmer to help fill the void.
He’s set career-highs in receptions every season and showed last year that he’s more than just a deep threat after averaging 21 yards per catch on 23 catches in 2018. He consistently made plays over the middle and tough catches in traffic.
Palmer has the size at 6-foot-2, 200-pounds and the speed to match up with any defensive back in the SEC. His tracking ability is some of the best around and he knows how to use that big body to shield defenders while making a catch.
If Jarrett Guarantano ends up as the starter, then Palmer will become even more crucial. Over the years he has shown to have a good rapport with Guarantano, which is obviously a big deal when it comes to the chemistry between a quarterback and receiver. The guys behind Palmer don’t have much experience with Guarantano or on the football field in general, for that matter.
There’s little doubt that Palmer won’t be the leader of the receiver room. There’s also little doubt that he’ll be the team’s No. 1 receiver in 2020. Even if the Vols want to run the ball, they will still need someone to throw to and ideally, that would be your top guy.