The 2021 Tennessee Volunteers were not expected to do very much. They had a new coach. There was an ongoing NCAA investigation into recruiting violations. A mass exodus to the transfer portal gutted the roster.

But the Vols exceeded most predictions from fans and pundits alike. They finished the season 7-6, with 3 of those defeats by less than one score, all while playing the likes of Alabama, Georgia and a rejuvenated Ole Miss program.

There hasn’t been much reason for optimism over the past 14 years at Tennessee, but for the first time in a long time, Vols fans are excited about the future of the program.

Let’s take a look back at the memorable 2021 season, while also eyeing 2022.

What worked in 2021

Head coach Josh Heupel brought his unique offense with him from Disney World to Knoxville, and there were more than enough fireworks to go around.

The Vols scored 511 points — most in program history. They averaged 39.5 points per game — 7th in the nation. They finished 9th in total yards at 474.9 per game.

In comparison to the Jarrett Guarantano era, the Hendon Hooker era has been a thrill a minute. Hooker’s 2,945 passing yards were impressive, as certainly was his 31 TD passes with only 3 INTs.

Cedric Tillman emerged as the Vols’ top option in the passing game with 64 catches for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns. Jabari Small proved that he could shoulder the load with a team-leading 792 rushing yards and 9 scores. Tennessee’s offensive line can improve, but overall they adapted well to the pacing of the Heupel attack.

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On defense, linebacker Jeremy Banks more than made up for the departure of Henry To’o To’o with a whopping 128 tackles. He also tied for the team lead with 11.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.

What didn’t work in 2021

You have to wonder how things have been different if Hooker started at the beginning of the season instead of Joe Milton. Hooker’s numbers would have been even better, and the Vols likely would have beaten Pittsburgh.

Milton’s accuracy issues remain a concern should the Vols have to call on him in 2022.

JUCO transfer Tiyon Evans looked like the next great Tennessee running back, but injuries limited him to only 7 games. Late in the season he hit the transfer portal and will play at Louisville next fall.

Tennessee’s secondary took the brunt of the blows from offenses and wasn’t able to keep up. The Vols allowed 3,551 passing yards and 23 passing TDs. The 273.2 passing yards allowed per game ranked them a woeful 122nd in the nation.

Key losses

On offense, Velus Jones, Jr. was a team leader on and off the field. He finished 2nd on the team in catches (62), receiving yards (807) and receiving touchdowns (7). Jones was also the top option on special teams, returning 18 punts and 23 kickoffs.

Offensive lineman Cade Mays announced that he would pass up a chance to return to Tennessee and head to the NFL Draft. K’Rojhn Calbert, who has some starting experience, announced he was transferring.

Defensive back Alontae Taylor also is leaving for the NFL. Like Jones, Taylor was a positive influence in the football complex. Defensive back Theo Jackson emerged with a team-leading 12 pass breakups.

Key returnees

Hendon Hooker’s decision to return for a 6th season of college football puts Tennessee in great position heading into the 2022 season. If healthy, he should be one of the best 2 or 3 QBs in the conference.

Tillman could have taken his shot at the NFL, but also will be back in Knoxville.

Banks and Aaron Beasley will give the Vols a solid 1-2 punch in the linebacking corps.

Key recruits

Tennessee’s Class of 2022 is ranked 15th in the nation, with 7 4-stars among the 20 new additions. They include DL Tyre West (6-3, 280 pounds), who could push for playing time next season, and Tayven Jackson, a potential QB of the future.

Tennessee is in desperate need of help in the secondary. JUCO transfer Desmond Williams might be an immediate option for defensive coordinator Tim Banks.

2022 schedule

A quick look at Tennessee’s schedule shows that it’ll be a challenge once again (any schedule with Alabama and Georgia isn’t ideal), but it lines up fairly well.

Their toughest nonconference game will be at Kenny Pickett-less Pittsburgh in September. USC transfer Kedon Slovis takes his place, but it’ll be tough for him to match Pickett’s success.

The Vols get Florida at home, then a bye week and then a road trip to LSU. Both the Gators and Tigers are going through major changes and have new coaches. The Vols also get Kentucky to come to Neyland Stadium.

How’s this for some way-too-early optimism: 2022 could potentially be a 9-win season, which would be the Vols’ first since 2016.