Better or worse? Previewing Tennessee's offense in 2021
There are a litany of reasons as to why Jeremy Pruitt is no longer the head coach at Tennessee.
Chief among them is obviously the looming NCAA investigation. A dozen blowout losses by at least 20 points over 3 seasons dinted the résumé, too.
But the fact the Vols could never field even a Top 100 offense under Pruitt was a constant source of fan frustration.
If you’re going to lose more than you win, at least give your fans something to cheer about. Lane Kiffin embraced this philosophy in 2020, with Ole Miss fun as hell — 6 shootouts in 10 games — despite being a below-average team.
With Josh Heupel now in charge on Rocky Top, Vol Nation is at least hopeful Tennessee has similar results this fall.
Heupel has a lengthy track record producing great offenses, so while there’s a lot to replace in terms of production — gone are the team’s top 2 tailbacks in Eric Gray and Ty Chandler and best wideout in LA Charger rookie Josh Palmer — the preverbal thinking is this new staff should get the most out a group that still has a nice pool of playmakers.
Passing offense: Better
As many as 5 quarterbacks are vying for the starting job:
Transfers Joe Milton (Michigan) and Hendon Hooker (Va. Tech).
Hold-overs: Harrison Bailey, Brian Mauer and Kaidon Salter.
The one guy who is no longer in the mix is Jarrett Guarantano, whose Tennessee career mercifully ended this offseason when he transferred to Washington State.
Oftentimes, Guarantano took far too much of the blame for the Vols’ offensive woes, but there’s no mistaking that Guarantano’s maddening inconsistencies were a real factor in the team’s issue scoring points (just 21.5 per game last season, but never more than 24.2 in the past 4 seasons).
But we’re going to find out this year if an antiquated offensive scheme had a lot to do with Tennessee’s QB plague, too.
Heupel & Co. bring their twist on the veer and shoot to Knoxville, emphasizing pace, explosiveness and vertical shots. Gone are the days when Tennessee’s offense has a faux governor attached to it, causally jogging to the line only to run the ball on 1st and 2nd down and then hope the quarterback bails the team out on 3rd-and-long.
Sure, there are questions about who will be throwing the ball for the Orange & White in 2021, but if history is our guide here, then I’m betting whoever wins the job improves on last years paltry numbers (7.2 yards per attempt and threw just 14 touchdowns to 9 interceptions).
Heupel got results at Oklahoma, Missouri and UCF, and he’ll do it again here. The Vols have some playmakers on the outside (Jalin Hyatt, Velus Jones Jr., Jimmy Calloway and Ramel Keyton) and an offensive line, that while it needs to find some cohesion in camp, has plenty of bodies to work with.
It’s a low bar to cross, but Tennessee should absolutely have a better aerial attack in 2021.
Rushing offense: Better
I was tempted to go push here, but alas, that wasn’t an option.
Tennessee had 2 very capable tailbacks last year, yet due to misuse and poor run blocking, the Vols’ ground game was mostly stuck in the mud.
Despite Gray, now the projected starter at Oklahoma, and Chandler, same at UNC, sharing the load, Tennessee averaged just 3.77 yards per carry — good for No. 94 nationally.
Jabari Small returns as the team’s top option, and the sophomore looks like a hand-glove fit with Heupel’s inside zone scheme. The Memphis native is a decisive, one-cut runner and should find some holes running behind the Mays brothers (Cade and Cooper), as well as veteran Jerome Carvin. Trey Smith is gone, but the former 5-star lineman wasn’t as effective as a bruising mauler in 2020 compared to seasons’ past.
There are also several options at running back behind Small for Tennessee to turn to for home-run plays. Freshman Jaylen Wright is one of the fastest newcomers in the Class of 2021 and Tiyon Evans, who was limited most of spring, was the No. 1 JUCO tailback in the country.
With defenses having to cover the hashes and at least respect Tennessee trying to throw the ball downfield, the Vols shouldn’t face nearly as many stacked boxes in 2021, leading to better production — both yardage and efficiency.
Kicking game: Better
There are unknowns here, but I’m banking on bounce-back season for the Vols’s special teams.
Tennessee wasn’t effective at kicking field goals or returning kicks during the shortened COVID season.
After a standout sophomore season, Brent Cimaglia had a down year, missing 4-of-9 kicks and an extra point. He transferred to Georgia Tech this offseason, leaving walk-on Toby Wilson and Southern Cal transfer Chase McGrath competing for the job. Wilson has never attempted a field goal, while McGrath was 32-of-42 in his career with the Trojans.
At returner, I expect Velus Jones Jr. to make a bigger impact than he did during his first season on Rocky Top. Also a former Trojan, Jones has the capability to house a kickoff return or two this fall — something he did twice at USC and a feat that didn’t happen at Tennessee under Pruitt.
I don’t know if Tennessee will make a bowl game in 2021 — although I lean it will find a way to squeak out 6 wins with a super soft nonconference schedule — but I’m quite confident Heupel, Alex Golesh and Joey Halzle will cobble together an attack that will average better than just 3 touchdowns a game and 5.25 yards per play.
These guys know how to scheme shot plays. The emphasis on pace will put pressure on defenses. It won’t always be pretty, especially with continued questions at quarterback and a snail-paced team now transitioning to tempo, but in the end, this overall group should be a lot more enjoyable to watch than Tennessee’s recent eye-gouging offenses of recent memory.