Tennessee heads into the 2018 season with modest expectations. That’s to be expected after the Vols posted what most would consider the worst season in program history last fall.
Most fans would be elated with a 6-6 season and a bowl bid. UT’s coaches and players would probably be quite accepting of that as well, although they’d never admit it publicly. So what do the Vols have to do in order to make that a reality? Here are some of the questions that will determine just what UT can accomplish in 2018.
1. Who will play quarterback?
This is not the question any team wants to face with a first-year head coach at the helm. However, that’s the case for Jeremy Pruitt. Sophomore Jarrett Guarantano would seem to have the inside track since he competed throughout spring practice under the new coaching staff.
Apparently, the Vols didn’t feel completely comfortable with Guarantano since they pursued Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst, who enrolled at UT this summer. The problem is that Guarantano and Chryst have been plagued by accuracy issues. It seems unlikely that sophomore Will McBride or incoming freshman J.T. Shrout can truly compete for the starting position, but who knows at this point.
2. What will UT’s offensive line look like?
The Vols have a ton of questions on the offensive line. First, Trey Smith did very little in spring practice with an undisclosed illness. He is expected back and healthy this fall. He had better be. He’s expected to be the anchor up front.
Drew Richmond is another unknown for far different reasons. He simply hasn’t lived up to his recruiting billing. He needs to do so immediately. Chance Hall showed he can play at a high level before he was sidelined with injuries. Marcus Tatum also figures to be in the mix. Alabama graduate transfer Brandon Kennedy will compete for a starting job. After that, well, it gets interesting.
3. Can the Vols protect the ball?
The Vols won’t have much margin for error this fall. It’s not a coincidence that athletic director Phillip Fulmer has repeatedly said UT will have to limit turnovers. The Vols won’t have a team good enough to overcome mistakes.
Limiting mistakes might be tough to accomplish. The Vols have accuracy issues at quarterback and a rebuilt offensive line that will most likely make its fair share of mistakes. That might make the Vols conservative offensively but they simply don’t have much of a choice.
4. How quickly will the Vols adapt to a new defensive scheme?
This will be one of the toughest questions to answer because there is reason to be optimistic and cause for concern. First, Pruitt is known as a great defensive coach who believes in making his defenses simple. That should ease the transition somewhat. However, the Vols can’t just change their defense and expect everything to run swimmingly in the first season under Pruitt.
The Vols relied on a defense built with lighter players under former coach Butch Jones. The base package was a 4-2-5. Pruitt has openly said he wants his defense (and his entire team for that matter) to be bigger. That’s not going to happen in one offseason. The Vols also figure to be more of a 3-4 defense this season, which is vastly different from what they played before. There won’t be much time to get ready as the Vols open the season against West Virginia and its high powered offense led by Heisman candidate Will Grier.
Which leads to …
5. Will Darrin Kirkland be healthy?
If healthy, Kirkland figures to be UT’s best defensive player and the best fit in the new scheme. At 6-1 and 238 pounds, Kirkland fits the mold Pruitt is looking for in a linebacker. Kirkland is also a very intelligent player. That should help him and his teammates line up correctly and know where to go when the ball is snapped.
The key for Kirkland is his health. His flashes of playmaking ability have been overshadowed by leg injuries that consistently sidelined him. Kirkland, who is suddenly a junior, is coming off meniscus surgery that kept him out of spring practice.That won’t help his transition into a new scheme.
Kirkland also considered transferring before deciding to stay at Tennessee. That makes one wonder if he’s completely sold on Pruitt. He’d better be. If not, the Vols will miss out on what could be their best defensive player.
6. Can the Vols start strong?
Beating West Virginia in the season opener would be huge. Even though the Vols will be underdogs, it’s a winnable game. If the Vols win that game, they should start the season 3-0 with home games against ETSU and UTEP up next. That would be a considerable accomplishment since the schedule ramps up considerably after that.
The West Virginia game will be held in Charlotte, N.C., which is a key recruiting area for the Vols. With just that one win, UT could set themselves up to get halfway to bowl eligibility and send a statement to prospects in the Carolinas.
7. Can this team win back the fans?
For all of Jones’ shortcomings, he had UT’s fan base excited early in his tenure. The Vols showed emotion and energy that resonated with the fans immediately. If Pruitt can do the same, the Vols should have a considerable homefield advantage against Florida in UT’s fourth game. Remember the Gators are also breaking in a new coach, albeit one with a better track record, in Dan Mullen.
The Vols will be an underdog against the Gators even if they are 3-0 but stranger things have happened, especially in that series. A strong home crowd could only help.
8. How will the Vols handle “The Gauntlet”?
Just like any SEC team, UT will have an incredibly challenging stretch this season. UT plays Florida at home then at Georgia before a bye week. Then the Vols play at Auburn, host Alabama and play at South Carolina. Ugh.
If the Vols can go 2-3 during that stretch, that should be considered a success. However, 0-5 is a real possibility. That wouldn’t sit well with the fans and certainly wouldn’t help recruiting.
9. How many mistakes will Jeremy Pruitt make?
That question might sound a little insulting, but every first-time head coach makes mistakes. How costly will they be?. As previously stated, the Vols aren’t good enough to overcome their shortcomings.
UT fans can look to another first-year head coach as reason for optimism. After several curious decisions in Year 1, Kirby Smart limited his mistakes in Year 2 at Georgia, well, until the National Championship Game.
10. Can the Vols make a bowl game?
It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when UT’s once proud program would gladly settle for a 6-6 record and a bowl bid. However, that’s the case. The Vols need to win all the games they should, limit mistakes, get a few breaks along the way to make a bowl game a reality. A bowl game would excite the fans and give UT an extra two weeks of practice. It’s possible, but it won’t be easy.