Better or worse? Previewing Tennessee's offense in 2022
Well, if you truly felt that Tennessee’s offense was going to perform as well as it did in 2021, I hope that you put the kids’ 529 plan cash on some of the Vols’ scoring props last fall.
The Vols ranked 7th in the nation in scoring offense (39.3 points per game). They were also 9th in total offense (474.9 yards per game) and 11th in rushing offense (217.8 yards per game). These were remarkable numbers, especially when you remember how much they struggled to move the football under Jeremy Pruitt.
Hiring Josh Heupel changed Tennessee’s offensive identity. The up-tempo style implemented by Heupel and offensive coordinator Alex Golesh was worth 2.99 plays per minute, tops in the nation. It’s fun for players and fans alike, and can be rough for opposing defenses.
The question is, can the good times keep rolling in 2022? Let’s take a closer look at whether the Vols will be better or worse, shall we?
Key losses: WR Velus Jones, Jr.; OL Cade Mays; WR JaVonta Payton; RB Tiyon Evans
Key returnees: QB Hendon Hooker; WR Cedric Tillman; RB Jabari Small
Potential breakout players: WR Bru McCoy; WR Jalin Hyatt
The Vols will sorely miss Velus Jones, Jr., now with the Chicago Bears. Losing Evans will not be as devastating, as Tennessee got used to playing without him. This is a team that continues to build depth. Remember, after Heupel’s arrival, the transfer portal was not kind to the Vols.
Passing game: Better
Hendon Hooker had one of the great quarterbacking seasons in Tennessee history. That’s really saying something when you take a gander at the UT alums.
Hooker’s passing efficiency rating was No. 3 in the nation, with 31 TDs and only 3 INTs. He also had 2,945 yards through the air.
Of course, he didn’t do it all by himself. Cedric Tillman had a breakout season with a team-high 64 catches for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns. Tight ends Jacob Warren and Princeton Fant proved to be solid options with a combined 34 receptions.
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But losing Jones and Payton is going to be an issue, especially Jones. This puts a lot of pressure on guys like junior Jalin Hyatt. It’s felt like he has been on the cusp of having a big year after catching 20 balls as a freshman and 21 as a sophomore. He’ll get more chances to prove himself this season. Jimmy Calloway and Ramel Keyton will also see the field a lot.
Another player to keep an eye on is Southern Cal transfer Bru McCoy, who caught 21 passes as a redshirt freshman in 2020 but was suspended and missed the 2021 season following his arrest on suspicion of domestic violence. Those charges later were dropped, clearing his path to Knoxville.
So how can the Vols be better? Let’s start with the fact Hooker will be entrenched as the starter from the jump. There will be no quarterback controversy this time around. He will also have another full year in this system. I think the passing game will take another step forward.
Hooker will become the Vols’ first 3,000-yard passer since Tyler Bray in 2012.
Rushing game: Even
Hooker was a force on the ground, too. He rushed for 620 yards, 2nd-best on the team. He also had 5 TDs. The big stat that stands out to me is his rushing attempts: 166 times he tucked and ran. That’s a lot of chances to get hit.
It’ll be interesting to see whether Hooker runs as much this season.
In this offense, the quarterback is going to take some licks, but Hooker was, for the most part, able to stay upright and played in all 13 games.
Hooker will have some help with Jabari Small, Jaylen Wright and Len’Neth Whitehead all back in the fold.
After Evans left the program, Small became the top option not named Hooker. Small rushed for 796 yards and 9 TDs, both team-highs. Wright and Whitehead did not have nearly as many carries as Small but proved effective when called upon with a combined 616 rushing yards and 6 scores.
Tiyon Evans transferred, but Wright and Whitehead should be able to recoup Evan’s 525 rushing yards and 6 scores.
The offensive line loses Cade Mays but brings back a lot of experience, including Darnell Wright and center Cooper Mays, which should help as well.
The Vols finished 2nd in the SEC with 30 rushing TDs last season. Reaching that total might be a tough ask — no SEC team has rushed for 30 TDs in back-to-back seasons since Georgia and Alabama in 2017-2018 (Alabama’s streak was actually 2014-2018). But Heupel’s offenses rely on the run and these Vols are talented enough to, well, make a run at that mark.
Kicking game: Worse
Kickoff returns are becoming less a part of the game every year. But when there was a chance to bring one back, the Vols were set with Velus Jones Jr., who averaged 27.3 yards per return, including 1 TD.
He’s gone, though.
Jimmy Holiday and Walker Merrill are a couple of options in the return game, but it’s going to be tough to make up for what Jones was able to accomplish.
Grad transfer kicker Chase McGrath was steady, converting on 75% of his field-goal attempts and making all 66 extra points. He’s back for a 6th season of college football.
Overall: Worse (but not a reason for concern)
I want to say that the offense will be better in 2022, but that’s going to be a very tall order because of exactly what they did in 2021.
Last year’s offense was a juggernaut, wreaking havoc on opponents. Had Tennessee’s defense been just a little bit better, the Vols could have won 9 or 10 games.
While Hooker and the majority of Tennessee’s skill players have had a lot of time in this system, that also means defenses have a lot of film to look at.
In the past 10 seasons, here’s the list of SEC offenses that have averaged 35+ points in back-to-back seasons:
- Alabama: 2012-2021
- Georgia: 2017-18
- Missouri: 2017-18
- Tennessee: 2015-16
- Auburn: 2013-14
- Georgia: 2012-14
- Texas A&M: 2012-14
Obviously, it’s not easy. I’m not saying that the Vols won’t score a lot of points in 2022. They have in the past and they will in the future. But I think that UT will come back down to earth just a tad in 2021 in terms of scoring and total yardage.