KNOXVILLE — There is a lot of positive energy surrounding the Tennessee football program since Phillip Fulmer took over as athletics directer and hand-picked Jeremy Pruitt as the Vols’ next head coach.
The look-ahead continues even as Pruitt wraps up his duties as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. The new coach certainly will be the face of the program on the sideline, but who will take the marquee role on the field? It’s impossible to know if any incoming recruit can take the alpha dog role immediately, but these five returning players certainly will have a shot at it:
Trey Smith, OL
Smith made an immediate impact on the offensive line as a true freshman in 2017. He started in the first game against Georgia Tech and late in the year became the first UT true freshman to start at left tackle in at least 30 years.
Smith played numerous positions last season, which will be valuable for incoming offensive line coach Will Friend. Friend can use spring practices to determine where best to employ the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Smith.
Smith can be a dominant force and the ultimate face of the team with his attributes, work ethic and leadership qualities.
Ty Chandler, RB
With the loss of running back John Kelly to the NFL, sophomore Ty Chandler will step up and be the leader of the Vols’ backfield.
Chandler carried the ball 71 times in his true freshman season, rushing for 305 yards and scoring two touchdowns. Chandler also showcased his skills in the passing game with 10 receptions for 108 yards. He even became a factor on special teams, returning 17 kickoffs for 416 yards and scoring one touchdown.
The sophomore should be the bell cow for the running game.
Jarrett Guarantano, QB
Anything can happen in the quarterback race with new coordinator Tyson Helton overseeing the offense. Is Jarrett Guarantano the answer at the position?
A good barometer will be how the redshirt sophomore adapts to Helton’s scheme this spring.
It appears Guarantano will have a head start in the QB race. It is unclear if Quinten Dormady will return, and if he does, his shoulder may not be ready to go through spring practices. Incoming freshman JT Shrout is not expected to arrive at Tennessee until at least the summer. Will McBride also returns and will compete this spring after gaining starting experience late last season.
Guarantano has the tools and intangibles to adjust to Helton’s scheme that relies on three-step drops, play-action and instinctive adjustments using a base of prepared plays while working off a wristband.
Marquez Callaway, WR
Callaway reeled in 24 receptions for 406 yards and scored five touchdowns as a sophomore last season. He should have been used more given the departure of Josh Malone to the NFL, but for whatever reason the former coaching staff didn’t make that happen.
Will that change in 2018 in a new offensive system? It should. Helton has a track record of utilizing play-makers, and Callaway most definitely is one.
Todd Kelly Jr., S
The senior played in only two games, making seven tackles, before getting injured and having season-ending knee surgery on Oct. 3. Kelly did not not participate in senior day festivities in the season finale against Vanderbilt after seeking a medical hardship waiver to gain another year of eligibility.
He will be a vital part of Pruitt’s first defense. Kelly has 37 games of experience, totaling 153 tackles and eight interceptions. He could be moved around on defense from his accustomed safety position to a possible hybrid linebacker role.