Tennessee football: 5 biggest holes to fill in 2021 starting lineup
Tennessee is turning the page from the 2020 season and the Jeremy Pruitt era, which certainly will not be remembered fondly.
Pruitt’s Vols went 16-19 in his 3 years on Rocky Top. The program is now facing NCAA penalties stemming from recruiting violations under his watch. And the financial issues in Tennessee’s athletics department are profound, in part because of the millions of dollars doled out for buyouts related to his firing.
But other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
New head coach Josh Heupel has a lot of work to do. The transfer portal is still in flux, but Tennessee looks to lose approximately 12-14 starters from last years 3-7 squad.
Let’s take a look at the 5 biggest holes the Vols need to fill in 2021.
QB: Harrison Bailey replacing Jarrett Guarantano
Tennessee’s quarterback situation has been a mess ever since Josh Dobbs took his talents to the NFL. From Quinten Dormady to Jarrett Guarantano to Will McBride to Keller Chryst … well, you get the idea.
With Guarantano now at Washington State, this is Harrison Bailey’s job for the taking. Bailey showed some signs as a true freshman that he could be a serviceable quarterback in the SEC.
J.T. Shrout transferred to Colorado and incoming freshman Kaidon Salter likely will be too green to earn the starting spot, so Bailey’s top competition looks to be Virginia Tech grad transfer Hendon Hooker. He gained nearly 4,000 all-purpose yards in Blacksburg.
Having Hooker to challenge Bailey will make both better, but I think Bailey will get the first opportunity to show that he is the quarterback and this is his team.
RB: Jabari Small to replace Eric Gray
The Vols were dealt a serious blow when running back Eric Gray, their best offensive player, announced that he was transferring to Oklahoma. Gray had 1,680 yards from scrimmage in 2 seasons, with 11 touchdowns. On a team with few weapons, he was their most reliable option.
Tennessee will look to sophomore Jabari Small to fill that void. Small’s college résumé isn’t that packed, with 117 rushing yards on 26 carries as a true freshman. But the Briarcrest Christian product appears to have a solid burst through the line with the physicality needed to stay upright in this league.
WR: Velus Jones Jr. to replace Josh Palmer
While Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings got most of the attention in recent years, Josh Palmer put together some pretty good performances as well. Palmer caught 99 passes for 1514 yards and 7 touchdowns as a Vol.
With Palmer now preparing for a chance to play pro football, look for former Southern Cal transfer Velus Jones Jr. to get a lot of those opportunities. Jones didn’t get as many looks as expected in 2020 but still caught 22 passes for 280 yards and 3 touchdowns.
When made a go-to guy in the Tennessee offense, Jones proved he can deliver. Jimmy Calloway, Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman will also get more footballs thrown their way in 2021.
LB: Jeremy Banks to replace Quavaris Crouch
At last look, Tennessee middle linebacker Quavaris Crouch was in the transfer portal, but had not yet announced a new home. It’s possible that he could return. But if he goes, the Vols will miss him. Crouch started all 10 games last season, collecting 57 tackles (3rd on the team).
Senior Jeremy Banks looks to be the guy who would move into that slot. Banks had a career-high 28 tackles last year. He’s settled into that position fairly well since beginning his time at Tennessee as a running back.
K: Chase McGrath to replace Brent Cimaglia
Tennessee’s special teams weren’t as effective in 2020, in part because Brent Cimaglia had a down year. Cimaglia opted out late in the season, and now is in the transfer portal.
The Vols were very quiet on National Signing Day but welcomed grad transfer Chase McGrath from Southern Cal. McGrath made 32-of-42 career field goal attempts for the Trojans with a long of 52 yards.