Considering Tennessee’s football team was recently ranked 66th in the nation by USA Today, there are obviously plenty of concerns in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season as the Vols’ head coach.
In fact, it’s much easier to find a handful of areas of concern than even one area of strength. That’s a daunting fact for a team coming off a 4-8 season.
Here are the three biggest reasons UT fans should be concerned about the upcoming 2018 season:
There was a time when Jarrett Guarantano was thought to be the heir apparent in UT’s once-proud quarterback legacy. That was a long time ago. Guarantano was one of the highest-rated quarterback signees in UT history, but his play has been inconsistent. Perhaps that was because of shortcomings in UT’s former coaching staff or their offensive approach. However, Guarantano can’t blame his previous coaches for some incidents of poor sideline demeanor that made him look nothing like a leader.
A lack of leadership might ultimately undermine Guarantano. When asked what he wants in a quarterback, Pruitt has said simply that he wants a player that his teammates can rally around. Can Guarantano be that guy?
If not, the door is wide open for Keller Chryst, a graduate transfer from Stanford. Chryst isn’t the most accurate quarterback, but he has plenty of experience in a solid program. He’ll transfer in this summer and could win the starting job. It’s worth noting that the Vols pursued Chryst with strong knowledge of his play. UT offensive coordinator Tyson Helton saw Chryst when Helton was coaching at Pac-12 rival USC.
It’s obvious from Pruitt’s days at Alabama that he wants big, physical cornerbacks. He even said so in his opening press conference shortly after he was hired by the Vols. Unfortunately for Pruitt, there’s a shortage of those on UT’s roster.
Sophomore Shawn Shamburger (6-0, 191) has experience against the SEC’s best. He started against Alabama last season. Shamburger (below) had a sack and 12 tackles. He doesn’t have the sizzle of some other highly regarded prospects, but he’ll be a factor this fall. Baylen Buchanan (5-11, 185) also doesn’t quite have the size but has great athleticism. Junior Marquill Osborne (5-11, 188) doesn’t quite have the size Pruitt wants, but he has experience and is a smart player.
The Vols moved mid-term enrollee Alontae Taylor (6-0, 184) from receiver to cornerback. While that was a bit surprising, it made sense. Taylor gives Pruitt the type of athlete he wants at cornerback. Taylor will have his growing pains, but this could be a great move for the long-term future.
Predicting Tennessee’s starters on the offensive line is no easy feat. In fact, it’s nearly impossible. This position unit is full of questions, injured players and undersized players with little experience.
Let’s start by assuming Trey Smith will come back from the undisclosed illness that sidelined him during spring practice. Reports have indicated that Smith will be back. He’d better be. Smith is by far UT’s best offensive lineman and can play almost anywhere. He started all 12 games as a freshman last season, including three at left tackle. He was the Vols’ first true freshman to start at left tackle in 30 years. He’s athletic, physical and plays with a mean streak. If the Vols don’t have Smith, they’ll struggle to push most SEC teams off the line of scrimmage.
Another injured offensive lineman, Chance Hall, also has plenty of talent, but knee injuries almost ended his career. If Hall can return to the form he displayed as a freshman, he’ll be a valuable addition. Hall has the perfect skill set to excel at tackle — and the Vols could use a pair of dependable tackles. Hall also has the ability to play guard if UT finds better options on the outside.
Speaking of tackles, it’s time for Drew Richmond to live up to his 4-star billing. Other than Smith, Richmond is the most important key for UT’s offensive line. If he can nail down the left tackle spot, the Vols have answered a major concern. It’s possible Smith could return to guard alongside Richmond, giving the Vols a formidable left side.
The Vols have a couple of athletic offensive lineman in Marcus Tatum and Nathan Niehaus. Both were very undersized coming out of high school but have added significant weight. But how much stronger are they? That will be key this fall.
Ryan Johnson will be an interesting prospect to watch. He was a highly rated prospect who came to UT with the size and strength needed to play. Johnson could be a pleasant surprise this fall. Converted tight end Devante Brooks and Riley Locklear are also worth watching when preseason camp opens.