Better or worse? Previewing Tennessee's offense in 2019
Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series previewing every SEC team’s offense, starting with the East Division. Coming Sunday: Vanderbilt.
Tennessee’s football team — despite coach Jeremy Pruitt’s best efforts — is still very much a team in flux. That’s what happens after a decade of questionable leadership, coaching turnover and roster instability.
Time will tell if Pruitt can remedy all that has gone wrong with the Vols since 2009. However, this season probably won’t provide a definitive answer since the UT still has so many questions on their roster.
While there are general concerns, today we’re taking a closer look at the offense, which returns some key pieces from a unit that finished 13th in the SEC in scoring (22.8 points per game) in 2018.
Will the Vols be better or worse on that side of the ball?
Passing offense: Better
The Vols should be better in the passing game than they were in 2018. UT was trying to learn a new offense last season and players had to be aware that former offensive coordinator Tyson Helton wasn’t leading the Vols the way Pruitt wanted. That disconnection between Helton and Pruitt couldn’t have been conducive to a productive environment.
UT’s players will once again have to learn a new offense since Helton left Tennessee to become the head coach at Western Kentucky. Yet this should be a smoother transition since Pruitt hired Jim Chaney as UT’s offensive coordinator.
Chaney is more accomplished than Helton and has a quarterback, junior Jarrett Guarantano, who has more experience than he did a year ago. The Vols probably don’t have a bona fide No. 1 receiver, but they have some playmakers, such as Marquez Callaway, Jauan Jennings and Josh Palmer.
Tennessee should be better at tight end if junior college transfer Dominick Wood-Anderson can live up to his recruiting billing. However, all of that optimism will be for naught if UT isn’t better on the offensive line. Some young, unproven players will have to prove they’re worthy of the challenge. Youth on the line means the Vols’ communication and chemistry up front could be lacking. If the Vols don’t have better pass protection, it’s hard to expect too much out of the passing game, which failed to average 200 yards per game last year. However, if the Vols can protect Guarantano, he has proven he can be a dangerous dual-threat quarterback.
Another factor with Chaney on board is his ability to maximize his quarterbacks’ strengths.
Former quarterback Jonathan Crompton struggled throughout his career until Chaney and former UT head coach Lane Kiffin found a way to make Crompton much more successful in the second half of his senior season.
Chaney and Co. used bootlegs and waggles to move the pocket in 2009. That helped protect Crompton by making use of his ability to throw on the run. Guarantano and Crompton have very similar skill sets so that type of offense would seem to work well in 2019.
Rushing offense: Better
The Vols should be more talented on the line, but it’s hard to imagine them being dominant run blockers with all the youth upfront. Even the most talented freshman is still a freshman who hasn’t been through a full year of strength and conditioning and likely isn’t sure of exactly what he’s supposed to do on every play..
While the Vols don’t have a star tailback, they do have a deep group of running backs who should be able to get the job done. Still, what kind of holes will they have to run through?
Keep in mind, the bar for improvement is low. Tennessee finished last in the SEC last season in rushing yards per game (129) and 13th in rushing TDs (15).
So, “better” is relative, but there would have to be several things happen for the Vols to have a much improved running game in 2019.
Here’s the best guess as to what UT’s starting offensive line will look like this fall: Wanya Morris at left tackle, Jahmir Johnson at left guard, Brandon Kennedy at center, K’Rojhn Calbert at right guard and Darnell Wright at right tackle. Ryan Johnson will also vie for a starting position but will at least be a good option as an interior utility lineman.
Of course that starting lineup could change drastically if Trey Smith can return to the playing field after battling issues with blood clots throughout his UT career. He missed 5 games last year but participated in spring ball. Pruitt is optimistic, saying earlier this week that Smith (below) is in the best shape of his life.
There’s certainly talent in that group, but Morris and Wright are freshmen. Kennedy is coming off an injury and lacks experience after transferring as a backup from Alabama. That means Pruitt has little idea what he will get at three very important offensive line positions.
Special teams: Better
Tennessee should be better on special teams simply because it should be more physical under Pruitt, who demands as much of his players. Moreover, with so much youth, UT should have some hungry players who hope to earn their way into a starting spot by showcasing their ability on special teams.
As for the return men, Marquez Callaway seems the most likely to handle punt returns. He had 1 of the Vols’ 2 punt returns for TDs last season. It remains to be seen who will handle kickoff duties. Ty Chandler returned the most kicks last season and showed some explosiveness. However, no one seemed like a huge threat on kick returns. UT seems to have capable returners. They could be much more dangerous with a more experienced return group in front of them.
Kicker Brent Cimaglia (10-of-13 FGs) showed enough last season to believe he can be an above average kicker this season as a sophomore. Rising sophomore Joe Doyle (41.12 average) is a solid punter who certainly proved himself last season.
Overall: Slightly better?
I’m hedging because it’s tough to determine if the Vols will be better offensively, but considering they averaged just 22.8 points per game, they certainly need to be. Much like last season was a year of transition for the defense, that is the case for UT’s offense this season. Tennessee’s offense will rely on its line and there are far too many questions up front to accurately predict how productive this unit will be.
If every unproven player comes through, the Vols could be better. However, that’s a lot to ask. Even with an experienced and underrated quarterback, expect UT’s offense to struggle again this season.