It’s no secret that Tennessee’s passing game has struggled since Josh Dobbs left following the 2016 season. Dobbs threw for 7,138 yards and 53 touchdowns during his Vols career. Most of those numbers came in his final 2 1/2 years, in which he started 28 consecutive games.

Since then there has been very little consistency. In the 3 seasons that followed, the Vols have had 2 head coaches, 3 offensive coordinators, and started 6 quarterbacks (including Jauan Jennings out of the Wildcat against South Carolina in 2019). When you look at all that uncertainty, it’s no surprise that there have been issues when it comes to throwing the football. There is a reason the Vols haven’t thrown for 3,000 yards in a season since Dobbs left.

But imagine how dreadful it would have been for the Vols without Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings available to catch passes. Better yet, don’t.

Let’s look specifically at the past 2 seasons, because Jennings was only around for the first half of the opener in 2017. Frankly, 2017 was a dumpster fire of epic proportions in every aspect for Tennessee football.

In the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Jennings caught 89 passes for 1,407 yards and 11 touchdowns. Callaway wasn’t far behind: 67 catches for 1,227 yards and 8 touchdowns. That is a lot of productivity, especially when you consider Jarrett Guarantano’s inconsistency and the shaky play of J.T. Shrout/Brian Maurer last season.

They also proved to be capable of coming up big in big moments. Jennings was a Tennessee legend after touchdown grabs against Florida and the Hail Mary against Georgia in 2016. Callaway had a Hail Mary catch in the first half of the 2018 upset of Kentucky. Those are just a couple of examples of their clutch play.

Heading into the 2020 season, the Vols finally have a returning offensive coordinator (Jim Chaney). They’ll bring back an offensive line that on paper is one of the best in the Southeastern Conference. They also have a young running back (Eric Gray) who might be heading for a breakout year.

Those are all positives.

Unfortunately, Callaway and Jennings are gone, and somebody is going to have to fill those cleats. No … Joey Kent and Marcus Nash are not walking through that door.

That immediately puts pressure on a group of receivers high on talent and potential but low on experience.

The veteran is senior Josh Palmer. With 66 career catches for 1,029 yards and 3 touchdowns, he is the Vols’ top returning pass catcher. His 2nd-half touchdown grab helped the Vols beat Kentucky last season. Barring injury or Neyland Stadium falling into the Tennessee River, Palmer will be starting the season opener on Sept. 5 against Charlotte.

But he’s going to need help.

Maybe that’ll come from Brandon Johnson, who took a redshirt in 2019. Johnson gets one more season on Rocky Top, with 60 catches for 738 yards and a touchdown on his résumé. Remember, he was productive as a sophomore in 2017, registering 37 catches. It’s been a while since Johnson had much of an impact for the Vols. Maybe he’ll be rusty … or maybe he’ll be ready. We’ll find out in a few months.

Those are the 2 we know the most about. The remaining candidates are an unknown variety.

Rising sophomore Ramel Keyton only caught 4 passes in 2019, but he might be able to bring some big-play ability to this offense. His 46-yard catch in the Gator Bowl was evidence (yes, in a small sample) that he could help stretch the field. Cedric Tillman, 2019 Georgia transfer Deangelo Gibbs and 2020 Southern Cal transfer Velus Jones also will attempt to get into the mix.

After that, we have to look at the younger newcomers. These true freshmen have eye-popping talent, but how quickly can they adjust to the college game?

Malachi Wideman, a 4-star WR, flipped from Florida State on National Signing Day. He’s nearly 6-5 with tremendous leaping ability, which could make him a weapon in the red zone, an area Tennessee struggled at times in 2019. Fellow 4-star Jalin Hyatt needs to bulk up to survive in the SEC. He’s 6-2 but weighs just 165 pounds. But his 4.31 40 speed won’t be ignored.  Speedy Jimmy Holiday and freak athlete Damarcus Beckwith also should have their shot to impress receivers coach Tee Martin.

Callaway and Jennings won’t be easy to replace, but the Vols have options. When spring practice gets underway next month, we’ll start to get more of a feel on who the Vols will be counting on without that dynamic duo.