Tennessee football: 5 things to watch surrounding the Vols' offense in 2021
It’s been a tumultuous last 9 months on Rocky Top, but the Orange & White Game was full of fireworks Tennessee fans could actually celebrate.
On Saturday afternoon in Neyland Stadium, Vol Nation got a glimpse of the potential offensive renaissance under new head coach Josh Heupel, with their final spring scrimmage chalked with plenty of points, yards and explosive plays.
CEDRIC TILLMAN DIVING GRAB FOR THE WIN!! pic.twitter.com/kMg2CCAMyk
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) April 24, 2021
Tennessee still enters the offseason with a litany of question marks — namely who will emerge from a crowded quarterback room — but the spring did at least offer some optimism about a roster that’s been decimated by departures since the firing of former head coach Jeremy Pruitt.
There’s still some talent in Knoxville. The ingredients are there for Heupel to do something fun, at least on offense, but the cake just might take a little while to bake.
Over the next week, I’ll examine the Vols’ offense and defense as they look to surprise some folks in Year 1 of the Heupel era.
Here are 5 things to watch (and know) surrounding Tennessee’s offense in 2021.
Who is the starting quarterback Week 1?
Well, we’re not any closer to answering this question since Heupel’s introductory press conference.
“It’s wide open,” Heupel said after the Orange & White Game.
“I’ve been through enough quarterback battles as a player and a coach to know that there’s so much time as you leave spring ball. They get a chance to sit back now and re-digest everything that’s gone on this spring, go through some installs this summer, to get a chance to coach it on their own and get a chance to learn from their mistakes. They have a chance to come back a much better and different football player by the time they get to training camp.”
Fans certainly have their favorite. Some love Brian Maurer’s swagger and ability to play off script. Others prefer Harrison Bailey’s 5-star pedigree and steadiness. Then there’s Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, who has experience.
All three had their moments Saturday, with Bailey performing the best among the trio. Still, the sophomore quarterback’s day was difficult to accurately judge since several of his explosive passes were either against the 3rd-team defense or when Tennessee’s porous secondary had some cataclysmic busts. From my viewpoint, Maurer continued to seesaw between “wow” and “maddening” plays, while Hooker, who was the presumed starter among many, displayed some real limitations.
But wait! There’s more competition on the way, too.
Freshman enrollee Kaidon Salter will rejoin the team this summer after serving a suspension all spring and former Michigan starting quarterback Joe Milton is set to enroll at Tennessee, adding another body to the mix. With so many guys competing for one spot, it would surprise no one if there’s a transfer out of the group this offseason.
What’s certain right now is that Heupel has options. None are perfect but many are intriguing. Who he tasks with running the show is still totally up in the air, though.
The Vols are going to play with pace and push the ball vertically … a lot.
Tennessee wasn’t even operating at full speed Saturday, but the tempo Heupel emphasizes was obvious from the first few series, and that included a 3-and-out to start the game.
There’s not a lot of wasted seconds between snaps. UCF led the nation in plays per game in 2020 with 86 — 20 more plays per game than Tennessee (66) — and while the Vols are still learning how to operate with tempo (there’s going to be growing pains with some frustrating false starts), the principles are in place.
As the Orange & White Game showcased, if you’re getting first downs, the super-speed pace is great and really stresses defenses, creating explosive plays.
But if you’re not, then the Vols could be in a world of trouble, because their defense might be a sieve in 2021.
What’s also obvious (and something I wrote about last month) is the need for whoever wins the quarterback job to push the ball vertically.
Heupel’s offense is dictated on exploiting the hashes vertically. The receivers line up wide and go. In 2020, UCF led the nation in completions (21) over 40 yards. The Knights were No. 3 nationally (22 completions) in the same category in 2019. Meanwhile, Tennessee had 13 total completions over 40 yards in the last 2 seasons combined.
On Saturday, the Vols had 5 passing plays over 29 yards. Bailey let it rip a couple of times for huge gains (a pair of 70+ passes), as did Maurer. Notably, Hooker was not nearly as aggressive pushing the ball vertically. I’m not sure if he was being overly cautious or if the play-calling was particularly different with the veteran behind center, but this offense doesn’t work if the quarterback isn’t willing to take shots.
There’s no shortage of playmakers in Knoxville
While Pruitt, Jim Chaney & Co., really struggled to engineer even a functional offense, they left Heupel’s new staff with plenty of toys to play with.
The Vols’ wide receiver/tight end room doesn’t have the pure star talent that exists at Alabama or Georgia, but Jalin Hyatt, Velus Jones Jimmy Calloway and Ramel Keyton are all capable playmakers — with the speedster Hyatt a potential breakout candidate in Heupel’s offense.
On Saturday, wideout Cedric Tillman, a buried veteran under the last staff, capped his strong spring with a big performance, making a couple of big snags, including a diving reception for the game-winning touchdown.
The most intriguing playmaker to emerge this spring though was Andison Coby. The JUCO transfer was a diamond in the rough find by Pruitt’s staff at the 11th hour in the 2021 signing class — and he’s become a parting gift that Heupel actually appreciates. The 6-2, 180-pound receiver reportedly made plays all spring and gives the Vols a nice outside replacement for Josh Palmer.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s tailback room lost its top two weapons from 2020 when Eric Gray transferred to Oklahoma and Ty Chandler left for North Carolina, but again, there’s quality bodies still there.
Jabari Small is a jitterbug who fits Heupel’s scheme perfectly. Freshman Jaylen Wright can fly and was one of the fastest recruits in 2021 class. Dee Beckwith (6-5, 227) and JUCO transfer Tiyon Evans (5-11, 225) are bigger backs with versatile skill-sets.
Tennessee may not be able to stop anybody this fall, but the Vols should be able to score some points, especially if …
Their offensive line is able to find a cohesive group
New OL coach Glen Elarbee comes to Tennessee with a strong reputation, and the veteran assistant has his work cut out for him this year trying to get the most out of a unit that largely underperformed the last few seasons.
Depth isn’t an issue. There’s plenty of bodies. But who emerges at multiple spots remains an unknown as the Vols exit spring practice.
Former 5-star Cade Mays will be a fixture somewhere in the starting lineup Week 1. But is it right tackle? Left tackle? Or guard, where he’s probably best suited?
Mays becomes the domino effect for the rest of the unit.
If the senior slides inside, then either walk-on Dayne Davis, who had a standout spring, or K’Rojhn Calbert, who’s played well at times the last few seasons but is inconsistent in practice and can’t stay healthy, will be the left tackle.
Cooper Mays appears entrenched at center, while Jerome Carvin, Javontez Spraggins and Riley Locklear are the first few options at guard. Jackson Lampley is looking to push his way into the rotation, too.
Then there’s former 5-star Darnell Wright, who’s mostly been a disappointment thus far at Tennessee. Can Elarbee squeeze the best out of Wright’s natural gifts?
Obviously, determining the quarterback position is paramount to Tennessee’s potential offensive success, but next in line for the new staff is to figure out exactly what it has — and how the pieces fit and coalesce — along the offensive line.
Looking for a breakout candidate? I’ll take Jabari Small
Hyatt is going to make a bunch of splash plays on the outside, but Small will be critical for Heupel’s offense to simply function efficiently.
The sophomore tailback was No. 3 on the depth chart in 2020, running the ball just 26 times for 117 yards.
But the 5-11, 200-pound ‘back from Memphis has the toolset that matches perfectly with Heupel’s heavy inside zone scheme. Even in an egalitarian backfield, I could easily see Small have 900+ total yards — rushing + receiving. Small isn’t a burner, but he has great vision, soft hands and hits the hole decisively. With a rushing attack full of RPOs and inside power runs, the Vols need to relay on a tailback that goes forward fast — and that Small’s game.