5 numbers I want to see the Vols' offense reach in 2020
This is going to be a college football season unlike any other. In the Southeastern Conference, that means a 10-game sprint to the finish, with the last 2 teams standing meeting in Atlanta on Dec. 19. At least, that’s what we hope happens.
Tennessee’s offensive output can’t be measured in typical terms due to 2 fewer games. But we can still find a few benchmarks that, if achieved, could mean big things for the Big Orange this season.
1. Jarrett Guarantano starts 10 games
It’s no secret that the Vols’ quarterback situation has been a bit unsettled since Joshua Dobbs took his talents to the National Football League. Tennessee has had 5 QBs start at least 1 game since the 2017 opener (6 if you count Jauan Jennings lining up in the Wildcat to kick off the 2019 South Carolina game).
Inconsistent play and rotating QBs help explain why the Vols have averaged 19.8, 22.8 and 24.2 points per game the past 3 seasons. Granted, they improved slightly each year, but ideally, that number jumps to 28 this season.
Some fans are pining for Harrison Bailey to follow in the footsteps of Peyton Manning and Casey Clausen and start as a true freshman. But that seems like a tall order, especially after an abnormal offseason. Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout have had their chances, but neither could keep the starting gig.
Jarrett Guarantano, now in his 5th year in the program, looks like UT’s best option. He finally will have the same offensive coordinator (Jim Chaney) in consecutive seasons. If Guarantano gets those 10 starts, it probably means that Tennessee has done well, and had no need to see what 1 of the other 3 options could do.
2. Eric Gray rushes for 1,000 yards
There are high expectations for a guy that started only 1 game a year ago. Tennessee sophomore Eric Gray only got 101 carries last season, but he made the most of them with 539 rushing yards. His 366 total yards in the season-ending wins over Vanderbilt and Indiana in the Gator Bowl served notice that he should be the guy in UT’s running game in 2020.
It might seem like a tall order for Gray to get to 1,000 yards. Ty Chandler is the Vols’ leading returning rusher (655 yards in 2019) and will get his share of carries. But Gray is in position to be the lead back and has the advantage of playing behind a very experienced and talented offensive line (with or without Cade Mays, who is still waiting on his appeal with the NCAA to play this season).
The Vols haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Jalen Hurd totaled 1,288 in 2015.
If Gray reaches 1,000 yards, the offense will be a unit that can control a few games on the schedule.
3. Trey Smith starts 10 games
OK, I know you are thinking that this is a bit of a cop-out since I already used this metric with Jarrett Guarantano. But think about what Smith means to the Vols. He started the first 19 games of his career before blood clots cost him the second half of the 2018 season, and nearly ended his career. He came back in 2019 to start all but 1 of the Vols games, playing in all 13.
Smith is a leader. He was the 2019 Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year and was up front as the Vols tackled social issues this offseason. With the departure of Jauan Jennings to the pros, Smith is the Vols’ most popular player among the fan base.
This will be Smith’s last season in Knoxville. He could potentially be a 1st-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. If he is on the field for the entire season, that will help his draft stock, at the same time helping the Vols chances for success.
4. Tight ends score 3 touchdowns
This might not seem like a big number, but sometimes the unexpected points are the ones that win games.
Dominick Wood-Anderson was the featured tight end the past 2 seasons, catching a total of 38 passes and 3 touchdowns. Who will replace him in the starting lineup? If healthy, it looks like Austin Pope. The redshirt senior has played in 33 games but only caught 7 passes. He’s valuable in the run game as a blocker but hasn’t been much of a threat in the passing game.
Maybe Pope, or Jordan Allen or Princeton Fant or Jacob Warren can step up and fill that void.
5. Josh Palmer catches 55 passes
This might seem like a tall order. Palmer caught 34 passes a year ago. The focus of the passing game was on Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway, who combined for 89 grabs in 2019.
But with that dynamic duo now in the NFL, there will be more opportunities for Palmer to prove that he can be the Vols number 1 receiver. He will be pushed by redshirt senior Brandon Johnson, sophomore Ramel Keyton and a few talented newcomers. But if Palmer can prove that he can be the go to guy in the passing game, the Vols might light up some scoreboards.
Since leading the SEC with 28 TD passes in 2016 (Dobbs’ final season), Vols QBs have thrown 11 TDs passes in 2017, 15 in 2018 and 19 last season.
Somebody has to emerge. The opportunity will never be better for Palmer to do so than in 2020.