10 biggest questions I have as Tennessee enters preseason camp
The 2021 Tennessee Volunteers are a collective unknown, with a new coaching staff and many new players. The 2020 season ended 7 months ago, but for this football program, it feels much farther back in the memory bank.
Here are my 10 biggest questions about the Vols as we draw closer to Fall camp and the Sept. 2 opener …
1. Who will win the starting QB job?
Tennessee’s quarterback room has undergone a whole bunch of changes. Jarrett Guarantano transferred to Washington State. JT Shrout moved on to Colorado. Kaiden Salter was supposed to be the QB of the future, but off-the-field issues got him kicked off the team (he is now at Liberty).
That leaves holdovers Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer, along with Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker and Michigan transfer Joe Milton to fight for the starting job. Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel apparently wasn’t sold on Bailey, Maurer or Hooker because he brought in Milton after spring football was complete.
2. Who are the impact transfers?
Much has been made about the 30+ players that Tennessee lost to the transfer portal. But Heupel and his staff worked hard to replenish the roster using that same mechanism.
Kansas defensive lineman Da’Jon Terry and Texas linebacker Juwan Mitchell both were highly sought-after entries to the portal and are a big boost at positions of need for the Vols.
Former Alabama cornerback Brandon Turnage also could be one to watch.
3. Is it Jabari Small’s time to shine?
Tennessee lost a ton of its rushing attack with the transfers of Eric Gray to Oklahoma and Ty Chandler to North Carolina, but that could mean big things for sophomore Jabari Small. He impressed in limited action in 2020 and has pretty much put a stranglehold on the position coming out of the spring.
Small, a key recruit out of Memphis, has the potential to put up big numbers in Heupel’s offense and should get many of the key reps during Fall camp.
4. Can Jalin Hyatt take a step forward?
The sophomore wide receiver played in all 10 games in 2020, making 20 catches. He looks like one of the best young receivers in the conference, and like Small, might flourish in Heupel’s offense. Hyatt’s athleticism and speed will make him a favorite of whoever is Tennessee’s quarterback.
5. What does the competition look like at middle linebacker?
Losing Henry To’o To’o was a huge blow, and not only because he transferred to rival Alabama. To’o To’o was one of a few defections in the linebacking corps.
Junior Jeremy Banks has the inside track to start at middle linebacker, but we didn’t see a lot of him in the spring as he was recovering from off-season surgery. Banks will battle Mitchell for the starting spot. Morven Joseph, Aaron Beasley and freshman Aaron Willis will also be in the mix.
6. Will Alontae Taylor become a defensive leader?
He was a key get for Jeremy Pruitt in those wild days following the crazy coaching search of 2017. Now, Alontae Taylor is one of only a few players who remain from Tennessee’s Class of 2018. He could have bolted, too, but didn’t.
Taylor arrived at Tennessee as an offensive standout but was quickly converted to the secondary. He started 19 games and made 102 tackles during his first 3 seasons. The fact that Heupel brought Taylor (and receiver Velus Jones, Jr.) to SEC Media Days proves that he thinks very highly of Taylor, and his leadership skills should only continue to grow in what likely will be his final season at Tennessee.
7. Will Tyler Baron emerge?
The Knoxville Catholic product didn’t start any games as a freshman, but he did collect 21 tackles, including a sack against rival Florida that was well received by Vols fans.
Baron is set to get a lot more playing time this season, where his pass-rushing talents off the edge will be on display. Fall camp could be a sign of things to come for the rising sophomore.
8. Will the Mays brothers take control up front?
Tennessee’s offensive line was knocked for a loop this offseason with the graduation of Trey Smith and transfers of Wayna Morris to Oklahoma and Jahmir Johnson to Texas A&M.
Cade and Cooper Mays (two more Knoxville Catholic grads) will now have every opportunity to grab starting spots, with Cade at tackle and Cooper at center. They might have been there even if Morris and Johnson stuck around.
9. Can the special teams be special?
One-time fan-favorite Brent Cimaglia transferred to Georgia Tech, but Chase McGrath is seemingly set to be his replacement from Southern Cal. Velus Jones Jr. should be the man returning kicks and punts.
For a team that likely is going to give up a lot of points, grabbing any points/extra field position will be key.
10. Will fans get excited?
I’ve covered Tennessee football for a couple of decades, and can honestly say that I’ve never felt as little buzz around the program as there is currently. Much of that is simply the byproduct of fan fatigue due to continued mediocrity.
Tennessee has to give its fans something to be excited about, and a reason to show up on Saturdays. Offense sells tickets, and Heupel’s offensive acumen is why he got the job. Heupel allowed fans into Neyland Stadium for an open practice back in April. Doing something similar in August would be a step in the right direction.