Tennessee football: Transfers making big impact early in 2021 for Vols
Right now it is, at least.
Behind an explosive offense and some timely defense, the Vols have boat-raced Missouri and South Carolina in consecutive weeks, moving to 2-1 in conference play and 4-2 overall.
Tennessee, which ranks No. 2 in the SEC in scoring offense averaging 40.3 per game, has already surpassed last season’s scoring output (249 to 215) in just 6 games, as Josh Heupel’s version of the “run and shoot” has produced all sorts of fireworks early in the 2021 season .
We still don’t know if Tennessee is any good or not, but at least the Vols are entertaining. Considering the past few seasons on the hill, that ain’t nothing.
The schedule stiffens up this weekend, with 4 ranked foes (No. 13 Ole Miss, No. 5 Alabama, No. 11 Kentucky and No. 1 Georgia) in their next 4 games, but Heupel has a chance to secure his first signature win in Knoxville by knocking off the Rebels in a winnable game.
He’ll need several former transfers who have found a fresh start on Rocky Top to continue their strong play to make that happen, though.
While Tennessee’s roster was gutted by departures (more than 30 transfers) following Jeremy Pruitt’s firing, the portal has both taketh and giveth for the Vols in 2021.
A slew of former transfers have emerged as key contributors this fall, including these 5 notables…
QB Hendon Hooker
Tennessee played the quarterback carousel the first few weeks of the season, but Hooker, a Va. Tech transfer who committed to UT under the previous staff, cemented himself as the better option over Michigan transfer Joe Milton.
There’s still some missed throws left on the field with Hooker, but the veteran starter has emerged as the playmaking trigger-man who is accurate enough to execute Heupel’s scheme, capable of threatening opponents with his arm (13 touchdowns, 1 interception) and legs (282 yards, 3 touchdowns). He’s completing nearly 70% of his passes and averaging 9.5 yards per attempt — 3rd-best in the SEC.
In just the past 2 weeks alone, Hooker has led big-play touchdowns drives consisting of 35, 92, 35, 24, 27, 39, 21 and 45 yards.
After several years of Vol Nation’s eyes bleeding watching poor QB play, that’ll work.
WR JaVonta Payton
The former Mississippi State wideout transfer has become Hooker’s go-to target when Heupel & Co., dial up “the touchdown play.”
Payton, a Tennessee native from Hillsboro who chose the Bulldogs over the Vols out of high school, has had a helluva homecoming since returning to the Volunteer State. So far in 2021, 4 of Payton’s 9 receptions this season have gone for touchdowns.
On the year, the 6-1, 180-pound Nashville native has scored in 4 consecutive games, including 35 and 39-yard TDs against Missouri and South Carolina.
Payton is on pace to smash his production at Mississippi State, and with his ability to get behind the defense on the perimeter in Heupel’s scheme, he’s set for more explosive plays the rest of the year.
PK Chase McGrath
When Tennessee lost Brent Cimgalia (transferred to Georgia Tech) to the portal this offseason, the Vols had a void at placekicker. Although Cimgalia struggled during the COVID-shortened season (just 5-of-9 on field goals), he was an in-state product who delivered time and again in 2019 (23-of-27).
The Vols signed JT Carver in the 2021 class, but the freshman wasn’t ready to handle the load as the team’s starting kicker, so enter Chase McGrath, who left Southern Cal for the hills of Tennessee, and the grad transfer hasn’t missed a beat replacing Cimaglia.
On the season, McGrath is 6-of-7 on field goals and perfect on extra points (32-for-32).
For a team operating under a slim margin for error, having a solid kicker Heupel can rely on could be the difference between going 5-7 or 7-5.
WR Velus Jones Jr.
Among this list of impact transfers, Velus Jones Jr. is the only player who was at Tennessee in 2020.
Jones, who came to Knoxville from Southern Cal due to his relationship with former USC and UT assistant Tee Martin, opted to stick around for another season following the coaching change last year.
While the speedster had some success as a returner under the previous staff, Jones was mostly a non-factor as a wideout until a breakout performance in the season-finale against Vanderbilt — with nearly 45% of his production coming in that game (7 catches for 125 yards and 2 touchdowns).
But Jones has found more success in the offense under Heupel, especially in recent weeks when the new staff moved him inside to the slot. Through just 6 games, the Alabama native has already set a career-high in receiving yardage (342) and has matched last season’s number of receptions (22) and touchdowns (3). Meanwhile, Jones remains a lethal special teams returner, ranking No. 3 in the SEC in yardage per kick return (25.0).
DB Brandon Turnage
If I made this list just one week earlier there’s no way Brandon Turnage finds his name on it. But a lot can change in just 7 days.
The former Alabama defensive back, who initially looked to transfer to Georgia this offseason but had a late change of heart and opted to go to Tennessee to seek more playing time, had only seen spot duty through the first 4 games for the Vols.
But with injuries mounting in the secondary, Turnage played some “dime” snaps in the blowout win over Missouri, and then this weekend against South Carolina, he had his coming out party.
Nickelbacks/safeties Theo Jackson and Doneiko Slaughter were both out vs. the Gamecocks, so Turnage got the start and turned in an outstanding performance.
The versatile 6-1, 185-pound defensive backlogged a team-high 14 tackles, including 2 for a loss, and avoided any sort of busted assignments or penalties. Turnage earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his effort and suddenly gives Vols DC Tim Banks another tool to play with in the secondary — a very notable addition considering the matchup with Ole Miss’ high-octane passing attack coming to town this weekend.