Tennessee football: 5 biggest observations as Vols enter bye week
Moral victories aren’t something that go in a trophy case. They don’t write songs about what almost happened, and no one puts them on a t-shirt.
So let’s not wax poetic too much on Tennessee’s near misses against Pittsburgh and Ole Miss, nor their gutsy performance in a loss to Alabama.
That all said, the Vols were not expected to be in position to be bowling this winter. The lack of depth, the 30+ players to the transfer portal, the new coaching staff and, frankly, the past 13 years of Tennessee football were all reasons to expect the worst.
Now that we’ve seen Tennessee play 8 games, we have a good gauge on what this team is, and what it is not under first year head coach Josh Heupel.
Here are my 5 biggest observations for the 2021 Volunteers:
1. Hendon Hooker is by far UT’s best quarterback
The quarterback competition was a bit of a cluster from the get-go. In June, true freshman Kaidon Salter was kicked off the team for multiple off-field incidents. In August, Brian Maurer left.
That left Michigan transfer Joe Milton, Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker and incumbent Harrison Bailey to fight for the job.
Milton was Heupel’s choice to start the season opener and even in a blowout win over Bowling Green, his accuracy was a concern. And after he was knocked out of the Pittsburgh game in week 2, Hooker took over.
Since then, Hooker and the offense has been very impressive. Hooker has completed 69% of his passes for 1,578 yards, 17 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. He’s not as comfortable running the football, but is still 2nd on the team with 416 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Hooker is Tennessee’s best offensive player, and the biggest reason for their improvement this season.
2. Tim Banks is a magician
There were skeptics about hiring Tim Banks as defensive coordinator. While he was a part of the success of Penn State’s defense, he was a co-defensive coordinator for the Nittany Lions.
But Banks has proven himself to be very capable. Ranking 75th in the nation in scoring defense might not seem like a great achievement, but when you look at what Banks has had to work with, it’s impressive.
Tennessee’s leading tackler the previous 2 seasons was lost to the transfer portal (linebacker Henry To’o To’o), as was their top recruit in the Class of 2020 (safety Key Lawrence).
The Vols are 3rd in the nation in tackles for a loss.
3. Jeremy Banks the leader
When To’o To’o jumped ship for Alabama, he left a big hole in the middle of the defense. Redshirt junior linebacker Jeremy Banks has done his best to fill that void.
Banks leads the Vols with 60 tackles. He leads the Vols with 9 tackles for a loss. He leads the Vols with 4.5 sacks.
In the Ole Miss game, when the defense was on the field for 101 plays, Banks was everywhere. He collected 15 tackles, 9 solo. He also had 2 tackles for a loss and a sack.
Banks has accepted his newfound role and performed brilliantly this season.
4. Special teams have impressed
This unit gets forgotten until things go wrong. But Tennessee’s special teams have been pretty good this year.
Punter Paxton Brooks is averaging 44.5 yards per punt, with 12 inside the 20-yard-line. The Vols are ranked 7th in punt return defense.
Kicker Chase McGrath, a grad transfer from Southern Cal, has converted 8-of-10 field goal attempts with a long of 48 yards.
Tennessee is also ranked in the top 60 in punt and kickoff returns.
5. Excitement is building
The death knell for a football program isn’t always wins and losses. It’s apathy. When fans aren’t supportive, that affects every aspect of a program.
The buzz around UT wasn’t there heading into the season, but it didn’t take very long for that to change.
The Ole Miss game (mustard bottle toss notwithstanding) was proof that when given the slightest reason to believe, Tennessee fans will support their team unconditionally.
With the Vols seemingly on the rise, fan support should stay strong.