Post-spring report card: What the Tennessee Vols did well, what they need to improve on
It’s funny what a difference a year can make.
At this time last year, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt was surely most concerned about his offensive line. In his first year as a head coach, Pruitt found himself with an offensive front what was not nearly to his suiting. He inherited a light, slim line that had rarely even played a snap with their hand on the ground. In contrast, the Vols will almost exclusively be in a three-point stance in Pruitt’s physical, run-first offense.
Now, Pruitt’s bigger concern this season seems to his defensive front after the Vols lost a handful of players to graduation. No, the Vols didn’t lose any superstars like their SEC counterparts, but UT lost depth and experience. Here’s a breakdown of where the Vols stand in some key areas following spring practice:
Quarterback situation: B
Jarrett Guarantano has clearly made some strides in his development. However, the junior still has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long and miss open receivers. This summer will be key for UT’s passing game. Guarantano should be able to get more done during summer workouts than he could behind a still shaky offensive line with full-contact practices.
Guarantano still has plenty of great attributes. He has good instincts, is smart, has above average arm talent and is athletic. He just needs to be more consistent. Also, Guarantano has grown as a leader but that process needs to continue.
As for backups J.T. Shrout and Brian Mauer, they’re both still a work in progress. Would they be ready for first-team duty if Guarantano went down early in the season? That seems doubtful.
Running game: C-
The Vols are much better equipped to run the ball this season than they were in 2018. UT is bigger, stronger and more physical on the offensive line. Some of that comes from experience. Some of that comes from new players on campus, such as mid-term enrollee Wanya Morris.
However, pass protection will come down to chemistry this season. That is clearly still a work in progress after spring camp.
Passing game (including WRs and TEs): B+
Josh Palmer was named one of the most improved players in spring practice. That’s good news for a group of players that could be considered a team strength. Palmer, Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway headline a group of players that should be able to make plays at receiver.
UT’s tight ends, who will likely be led by senior Dominick Wood-Anderson, are very much still a growing group. UT’s tight ends need to get open more often against defensive backs and they need much more depth.
Run defense: D
This could be a real problem if some Vols don’t show some much-needed improvement this summer. However, that could be tough to do with limitations on contact. Can the Vols get more physical without pads? It’s not impossible to think that would be the case but it would be a surprise if they took any sort of quantum leap. UT’s defensive front has also not shown the ability to consistently produce turnovers. Those are the type of plays that could change close games.
Passing defense: B
When one looks at UT’s defensive backs, they appear to have the ability to be ballhawks. They didn’t show that enough during spring practice. Time will tell if freshman Jaylen McCullough can live up to his Orange and White performance. McCullough had two interceptions in the UT finale but Pruitt said he could only recall one other interception by McCullough during the remainder of spring practice.
Special teams: C
The Vols should have more options at punt returner after relying on Callaway for most of last season. Ty Chandler or Bryce Thompson figure to handle the kick return duties. Joe Doyle should handle first-team punt duties while Paxton Brooks will provide depth. Brent Cimaglia should be solid at place kicking.
The Vols need at least a pair of players to step up in the defensive front. If not, UT’s rebuilt – and improved – secondary could be forced to carry the load this season. Tennessee’s coaches may need to be creative in order for their running game to break big plays. The Vols don’t seem to have a game changer at running back unless something changes this summer. Pruitt can be stubborn with the running game but it may be in his best interest to lean on his playmakers at wide receiver early in the season. That would loosen up defenses.