Tennessee football: 4 most critical position battles for 2020
Year 3 of the Jeremy Pruitt era will mean higher expectations for the Tennessee Volunteers. That’s the result when you finish the season with 6 consecutive wins, including a bowl game.
On offense the Vols will lose 3 starters, each of whom played key roles: WRs Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings, and tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson. Tennessee got great news when left guard Trey Smith announced that he was returning for his senior season. They also got a break when the NCAA granted Brandon Kennedy a 6th year of eligibility, so he will be back in 2020 as the starting center. The Vols should return 8 starters on that side of the ball.
On defense, the Vols will say goodbye to 3 starters: LBs Daniel Bituli and Darrell Taylor, and safety Nigel Warrior. Eight starters should be back.
Some very important pieces to the rebuilding puzzle are leaving but not a devastating number for Tennessee. With that in mind, let’s take a look at 4 of the most important position battles to come.
Jarrett Guarantano vs. Brian Maurer vs. J.T. Shrout vs. Harrison Bailey
Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout each started, but the incumbent is Jarrett Guarantano, who regained his starting job during the Vols’ late-season run.
The problem is that Guarantano, who will enter his 5th and final year at Tennessee, simply can’t be relied on when the Vols face top teams. The accuracy issues and mental mistakes he made against Indiana in the Gator Bowl would have cost the Vols the game had they been playing Florida or Georgia, the 2 teams they are chasing in the SEC East. Maurer and Shrout have strong arms but have had short leashes due to the same types of issues Guarantano has.
For these reasons, Vols fans are looking to incoming freshman Harrison Bailey, a 4-star prospect from Georgia. Bailey is on campus and has started learning the playbook. It feels like a big ask for him to be the guy this fall. But true freshmen are inserted into starting lineups more and more (including at Tennessee), so don’t discount that possibility.
Projected winner: Jarrett Guarantano. But it would not be a surprise to yet again see multiple quarterbacks start games for Tennessee in 2020.
Ramel Keyton vs. Brandon Johnson vs. Cedric Tillman vs. Velus Jones
With Callaway and Jennings moving on, there are a lot of opportunities in the passing game. Senior Josh Palmer is the top returning receiver. He had 34 catches in 2019 and will certainly be one of the starting receivers in 2020.
The other 2 spots are up for grabs. Rising sophomore Ramel Keyton only had 4 catches in 2019, but he is a big-play threat, averaging 26 yards per grab. Redshirt sophomore Cedric Tillman also had only 4 catches last season, but has the size (6-3, 211 pounds) to withstand the physical toll of added playing time. Brandon Johnson took a redshirt after playing in only 4 games in 2019. He hopes to regain his 2017 form, when he caught 37 passes. Velus Jones is a grad transfer from Southern California. He was stuck behind veteran receivers last season, catching only 6 passes. Maybe the relocation to Knoxville is the jump start he needs as he reunites with Tennessee wide receivers coach Tee Martin, who was his OC at USC.
Projected winners: Ramel Keyton and Brandon Johnson. Keyton allows the Vols to stretch the field while Johnson brings much needed experience to the position.
Quavaris Crouch vs. Solon Page III vs. J.J. Peterson vs. Bryson Eason
Bituli led the Vols in tackles for the past 3 seasons, so his departure is a really big deal. Someone has to fill his large cleats at inside linebacker.
Quavaris Crouch, a rising sophomore, played in every game as a true freshman and was tied for 12th on the team with 28 tackles. He has spent most of his time on the outside with Bituli and rising sophomore Henry To’o To’o taking most of the ILB snaps. (He is also a short-yardage specialist on offense, scoring twice on 1-yard touchdown runs.)
J.J. Peterson played in all 13 games for the Vols in 2019, collecting 13 tackles. He’s a 4-star prospect still trying to realize his full potential. Solon Page III only played in 5 games in 2019, making 7 tackles. He will be a redshirt junior. Newcomer Bryson Eason is an intriguing possibility. The true freshman is 1 of 3 Whitehaven high school linebackers to sign with Tennessee and is best suited to play in the middle of the field.
Projected winner: Quavaris Crouch. He and To’o To’o will be a dynamic duo in the middle of the defense.
Eric Gray vs. Bryce Thompson vs. those fast incoming freshmen
With the graduation of Callaway, the Vols will need to find someone that can return punts. Callaway averaged 14 yards per return last year and scored 3 touchdowns on punt returns during his career.
Pruitt has options. Eric Gray returned 2 punts in 2019 and has certainly shown the ability to break free from defenders. Bryce Thompson is established as a starter at cornerback but could follow in the footsteps of another recent secondary standout. Cam Sutton performed double duty, returning 45 punts in the mid-2010s, scoring 3 touchdowns.
Tennessee’s Class of 2020 features 3 players who have run sub 4.4 40s. Jimmy Calloway, Jimmy Holiday and Jalin Hyatt are now among the fastest players on the team, and at least one of them might have the opportunity to see the field right away in the return game.
Projected winner: Eric Gray. The rising sophomore is simply too good to limit and they need to find more ways to utilize his talents.