5 reasons Tennessee can win the SEC East this season
Tennessee reached Atlanta five times between 1997-2007.
Now, after making some strides the past two seasons, the Vols look to find a way to get back to the SEC championship game for the first time in 10 years.
But how can Team 121 win the East in 2017? Here are five keys to success:
1. Offensive line depth
The Vols have their best offensive line unit since Butch Jones’ first season in 2013.
The line will be better, deeper and more experienced. Brett Kendrick and Drew Richmond likely will share the left tackle position. Coleman Thomas will return at center. Jack Jones, Jashon Robertson and Venzell Boulware return at the guard spots. Chance Hall and Marcus Tatum will fill the right tackle position. Highly-touted incoming freshman and early enrollee Trey Smith should be able to play any position as needed. Red-shirt freshman Ryan Johnson provides depth at tackle.
2. Coaching staff shakeup
Credit Butch Jones for shaking up his staff to try to improve his program. After four seasons, only linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen and running backs coach Robert Gillespie remain from Jones’ inaugural 2013 season.
The staff has been fortified with former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke as defensive line coach and well-respected defensive backs coach Charlton Warren. Rock Gullickson comes in as the strength and conditioning coordinator from the Los Angeles Rams. The promotions of Larry Scott to offensive coordinator and Walt Wells to offensive line coach, plus the addition of Kevin Beard as wide receivers coach, rounds out the changes. It is also important for second-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to finally have some of his coaches in place.
3. Play-makers on offense
There are plenty of play-makers on offense, and how they will be distributed and involved will be something to keep an eye on under new coordinator Larry Scott.
Whoever becomes the starting quarterback will have key guys at key positions he can count on. It starts with John Kelly, who emerged at running back when Jalen Hurd decided to leave the team and Alvin Kamara battled injuries.
Senior tight end Ethan Wolf will look to cap off his career in fashion after posting three-year totals of 67 receptions, 752 yards and four touchdowns. Wolf also has been a strong presence as a run-blocker and pass-blocker.
Jauan Jennings leads the way as the top wideout after catching 40 passes for 580 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Rising sophomores Tyler Byrd, Brandon Johnson and Marquez Callaway will accompany seniors Josh Smith and Jeff George in adding depth to the receiving corps.
4. Kicking game
The Vols will be sound in the kicking game again in 2017. Both the kicker and punter are returning seniors.
Aaron Medley has made 52 of 73 field goal attempts and 158 of 159 extra points in three seasons. Red-shirt senior punter Trevor Daniel is averaging 45.1 yards on 130 punts in two seasons. He has 43 punts of 50-plus yards with a long of 70, and 53 downed inside the 20-yard line.
5. Quarterback play
No matter who the quarterback might be — Jarrett Guarantano, Quinten Dormady or Sheriron Jones — he will have to step up. If one of them can become a factor within the offense and lead the team like Jalen Hurts did for Alabama as a first-year starter, the Vols can make a run to Atlanta. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Joshua Dobbs’ replacement can come in and take Tennessee to the SEC East title.