Tennessee football: 5 things I want to see in Saturday's spring game
The annual Orange & White Game will take place Saturday at Neyland Stadium. It will be the last chance for Tennessee fans to see their team before the 2021 opener against Bowling Green.
I’m not sure how much you can really tell from a scrimmage. Some players have had memorable days in this game but were never heard from again when the games actually counted.
But it’s football and that will be hard to find for the next few months, so we might as well enjoy it. Especially since it’s also the first real look at Josh Heupel’s progress.
With all this in mind, here are 5 things I want to see in Saturday’s scrimmage.
1. Let the QBs wing it
College football coaches are a different breed. They stay up at night losing sleep worrying whether an opposing coach could find a 7-second clip of a play they ran in 1993, which only exists on Betamax tape.
But I’d like to see if Tennessee’s quarterbacks have improved at all since the end of the 2020 season.
Jarrett Guarantano and J.T. Shrout transferred. Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer stayed. Hendon Hooker transferred into Knoxville from Virginia Tech.
The quarterback position has been a mess since Josh Dobbs left after the 2016 season. Hope springs eternal that Bailey, Maurer or Hooker (especially Bailey or Hooker) can give the Vols competent minutes.
This week there were reports that Tennessee would add former Michigan QB Joe Milton to the mix. If that happens, the quarterback room will become even more crowded starting this summer.
I’m hoping that Saturday the coaches allow the fans see what the incumbents can do.
2. Get Jabari Small a bunch of carries
Tennessee’s running back position is in a state of flux. Eric Gray transferred to Oklahoma. Ty Chandler transferred to North Carolina. That’s 1,228 rushing yards from last season that ran out the door.
The leading returning rusher is Jabari Small. He only got 26 carries for 117 yards as a freshman last season but was impressive in that small sample size. (Get it? Small? I’ll be here all week. Try the veal.)
He has been limited at times this spring but dressed for practice last week and hopefully will be a full go Saturday.
Heupel’s offense is geared toward the pass, but the running backs still get a lot of work.
The starting job is there for Small to take.
3. Can Heupel excite the fans?
Orange & White games were odd affairs during the Butch Jones era. Jones would march around the field, screaming into a microphone, with a scoring system that only a NASA engineer could decipher.
Under Jeremy Pruitt, the games weren’t memorable at all, except maybe for the 2020 game canceled due to COVID.
Heupel needs to be somewhere in the middle.
The odds are that the offense will rule the day, in part because Tennessee’s defense has been decimated by transfers even more than the offense.
Heupel was hired in large part because of his innovative offense. Hopefully, there will be a few plays that get Vols fans out of their seats.
4. A leader to emerge on defense
Linebacker Henry To’o To’o was Tennessee’s best football player the past 2 seasons, but now he’s in the transfer portal. Although he hasn’t decided on his next move, it would be a massive surprise if he returned to Rocky Top.
So I’m hoping to see someone fill his rather large cleats. Maybe local product Tyler Baron is ready? He’ll only be a sophomore, but he showed positive signs at the end of last season. Senior Alontae Taylor also is a candidate for that role.
Lots of snaps to come on Saturday, lots of chances for somebody to make some plays on defense.
5. Jalin Hyatt taking a big step forward
If Tennessee’s Class of 2020 had a strength, it looked to be at the wide receiver position. Dee Beckwith, Jimmy Calloway, Jalin Hyatt and Malachi Wideman each had highlight films that made Vols fans take notice.
But so far Hyatt has been the only one to emerge from that group. He finished 4th on the team with 20 catches and was 3rd in receiving yards with 276. Hyatt also scored 2 touchdowns. He was among the best freshman receivers in the SEC.
Redshirt senior Velus Jones Jr. looks the be the first option for whomever is playing quarterback, but Hyatt isn’t far behind. Hopefully, he makes a few plays Saturday to prove he needs a bunch of passes thrown his way this season.