Though expectations won’t be quite as high for the Tennessee Volunteers as last season, fans in Knoxville are still hoping for a team that can compete for the SEC’s Eastern Division crown. It’s hard to highlight an obvious strength for this team, because the Vols have question marks – literally – everywhere, but Tennessee’s most proven group is probably its special teams. There is also some potential for the offense, as a whole, to end up being pretty good.

Here is a look at Tennessee’s position groups and how confident we should be in each unit on a scale of confidence, some confidence, not much confidence and no confidence.


Quinten Dormady/Jarrett Guarantano

Confidence meter: Some confidence

Tennessee has not led the SEC in passing since 1975, when Randy Wallace was the main QB.

Why: It’s hard to be totally confident here, but there is plenty of reason for hope. Dormady and Guarantano have been battling so close to this point that a starter has yet to be named (even though one UT player thinks he knows who it is). Dormady is a pocket passer with a strong arm, and has been impressive in limited action. He was 10-for-10 passing with 120 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Tennessee’s spring game. Guarantano, a dual-threat redshirt freshman, might fit Tennessee’s usual offensive scheme better but he doesn’t have any experience against SEC teams. Both quarterbacks appear to be talented enough to compete at the SEC level.


John Kelly

Confidence meter: Not much confidence

Why: With Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara no longer on the roster, it’s hard to have much confidence in this unit at the moment. It’s certainly not because of Kelly, who had 630 rushing yards last year as a third-teamer and part-time starter. Kelly should be fine as the full-time starter. The lack of confidence comes as a result of a lack of depth. This confidence level could certainly improve by mid-season, as incoming true freshman Ty Chandler has potential. He was a touted 4-star recruit coming out of high school, and the indication is that he will be hard to keep off the field. It’s just hard to say for now. Besides Kelly, all of Tennessee’s running backs are unproven.


Jauan Jennings, Tyler Byrd, Marquez Callaway, Ethan Wolf (TE)

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Confidence meter: Some confidence

Why: Between burning Jalen Tabor for a touchdown to give Tennessee the lead against Florida and catching the winning Hail Mary against Georgia, Jennings has proven he’s a big-play receiver. Byrd had more than 200 receiving yards last year, which doesn’t sound like much, but he had big games against Florida and Texas A&M in limited action. You could say he’s – somewhat – proven. Wolf was a fairly consistent target for Joshua Dobbs last season, and should be reliable as a returning senior. The concern with this position group, like many others, is depth. But even after losing Josh Malone (972 receiving yards in 2016) to the NFL, Tennessee has several players who can catch the ball.

Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports


Drew Richmond/Brett Kendrick, Jack Jones, Jashon Robertson, Trey Smith, Chance Hall

Confidence meter: Some confidence

Why: There are still a few questions that need to be answered here. Such as … With playmakers like Kamara and Dobbs in the backfield that could elude defenders, how much credit does this offensive line deserve for Tennessee’s strong rushing performance last year (205 yards per game on the ground)? Also, Smith looks like one of the best offensive linemen Tennessee has recruited in years. But he’s still a true freshman. Can he hold his own at right guard against experienced fronts from Alabama, Georgia, etc.? Regardless, this is Tennessee’s strongest position group on offense. Besides Smith, the 5-star recruit, these upperclassmen have a ton of game experience.


Jonathan Kongbo, Kendal Vickers, Kahlil McKenzie, Darrell Taylor

Confidence meter: Not much confidence

Why: Derek Barnett was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of player, a sack machine who broke Reggie White’s school record and went in the first round of the NFL Draft. Replacing his presence as a pass rusher will not be easy. Plus his weak side counterpart, Corey Vereen, is also gone. That means a Vol pass rush unit that racked up 30 sacks last year will be without its two best players. And to be honest, between inexperience and injuries, the rest of this defensive line got worked for the most part last season. It’s great that Tennessee has a majority of players back with starting experience, but they have a lot to prove after getting gashed against the run – and they have big shoes to fill.


Colton Jumper/Daniel Bituli, Cortez McDowell

Confidence meter: Not much confidence

Why: Over the weekend reports surfaced that starting middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. suffered a knee injury in practice. That has since been confirmed and Kirkland will be out for at least Week 1 – and likely longer. That is an incredibly crushing blow for this unit, which suffered a multitude of injuries last season. Still, Jumper, a former walk-on, was fourth on the team with 61 tackles in 2016 and McDowell added 54. Now seniors, both of those players have plenty of game experience. Bituli and Quart’e Sapp also are serviceable, but winning in the SEC requires more than serviceable. As is the case with the defensive line, this unit has plenty to prove after being humiliated by opposing running backs last year.


Justin Martin, Shaq Wiggins, Todd Kelly, Jr., Nigel Warrior, Rashaan Gaulden

Confidence meter: Some confidence

Why: First off, this group has proven depth and experience. Kelly Jr. and Gaulden are fierce tacklers, along with backups/possible starters Micah Abernathy and Emmanuel Moseley. The latter pair should see the field as much if not more than Martin, Wiggins and Warrior. It’s hard to say who will be on the field first, and that’s the good thing about this secondary. It’s full of seasoned veterans. The biggest concern is how much these experienced players have improved, as Tennessee’s pass defense ranked 10th in the SEC last year – with a reliable pass rush. The experience and depth give reason for hope, but these guys need to be better than they were a season ago.

Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Special teams

Aaron Medley (PK), Trevor Daniel (P), Evan Berry (KR), Tyler Byrd (PR)

Confidence meter: Confidence

Why: This is, collectively, Tennessee’s best unit. Throughout his career, Berry has been one of the nation’s top kick returners, and now he’s a senior. The Vols ranked fourth in the SEC last year in punt returns as well, though Byrd replaces Kamara. Punter Trevor Daniel might be the best in the SEC. He averaged close to 45 yards per punt last season, and is known for being a clutch player who magically downs punts inside the 1-yard-line. Medley has the most question marks on special teams after hitting just 11 of 16 field goal attempts last season. He’s a senior, so experience shouldn’t be a factor. Tennessee has been solid on special teams throughout head coach Butch Jones’ tenure, and there’s no reason to think that will change this season.