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College Football Preview 2022: 19. Tennessee Volunteers

Hendon Hooker, Tennessee

19. Tennessee Volunteers

A dark horse Heisman candidate at QB and improved defense should steer Tennessee into SEC East contention

2021 Review
Following a disappointing 2020 campaign and brutal offseason that led to the dismissal of Jeremy Pruitt, not much was expected of Tennessee heading into 2021. We knew Josh Heupel's team would put up points, but would they have any shot at a bowl? It turned out they would, as the Vols were a pleasant surprise, despite an average record. They did suffer a non-conference defeat at the hands of Pittsburgh and were no match against Florida to begin the season, but the quarterback change seemed to light a fire under the entire team. Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker acclimated quickly and Tennessee was no easy out, even if they would fall to Alabama, Ole Miss, and Georgia to cap off the regular season. A Music City Bowl matchup against Purdue seemed like the perfect opportunity to gain some momentum for next season in their own backyard, but the Volunteer defense struggled mightily, resulting in a thrilling 48-45 defeat. The final result of 7-6 wasn't something to ride home about in Knoxville, but considering many of the questions the team entered the year with, it was a good start for Heupel and the new staff. With plenty of pieces back and renewed confidence around the program, expectations should be quickly back on the rise in one of college football's most intense environments.

2022 Outlook
Offense: Huepel and his offensive staff didn't disappoint offensively during their debut seasons in Knoxville. Tennessee ranked second in the SEC in scoring and finished with the ninth overall offense in the entire nation. They did so despite a midseason quarterback change, as Michigan transfer Joe Milton was benched in favor of another transfer, Hooker.

Hooker had flashed his immense playmaking potential and impressive arm before during his time at Virginia Tech, but it was still fairly surprising to see just how impressive he played in 2021. He threw for 2,945 yards and 31 touchdowns, while adding 616 and five more on the ground. Despite throwing the ball all over the field (303 attempts) he took care of it, with just three interceptions to his credit. Now, with a full offseason with Heupel and the entire staff, big things are expected of Hooker. He's one of the most talented signal-callers in the country and in an offense that always puts up huge quarterback numbers? I don't think it's crazy to include Hooker in the Heisman conversation.

Hooker and junior Jabari Small fueled a rushing attack that finished second in the SEC and 11th nationally. Expect Small to play an even larger role in this backfield, as the player he split carries with, Tiyon Evans, transferred to Louisville. After notching 796 yards in 2021, I suspect he will come close to, or surpass, 1,000 this year. Sophomore Jaylen Wright offers a capable backup, as he ran for 409 yards as the third-stringer last season.

The receiver corps is an interesting mix of pieces, headlined by senior Cedric Tillman. Tillman became the first Tennessee receiver to surpass the 1,000-yard threshold since Justin Hunter all the way back in 2012. He's a physical, well-built receiver who should be the focal point on the perimeter once again. However, Tillman and this entire offense will need others to step up and take some of the focus off him. With the ultra-versatile Velus Jones gone, junior Jalin Hyatt and sophomores Jimmy Calloway and Walker Merrill will get an increase in targets. Hyatt was third on the team in receiving last fall, but flashed significant potential. In addition, there are several true freshmen who may be able to come in and make an immediate impact, including Kaleb Webb and Cameron Miller.

Don't expect tight end to be a position that features heavily in this offense, but the Volunteers have two capable options in Princeton Fant and Jacob Warren. Fant is the better blocker, while Warren is a decent red zone target, hauling in three touchdown receptions in limited work last fall.

The optimism around this offense can be traced not only to Hooker and some of the other weapons, but the offensive line. Injuries and the rapid shift in offensive scheme contributed to major struggles for this unit, but now four starters return. The Volunteers should be especially strong on the interior, with Cooper Mays, Jerome Carvin, and Javontez Spraggins, while senior Darnell Wright mans left tackle. Right tackle is the only position with serious questions going into fall camp.

Although a few supporting pieces may be gone, Tennessee's offensive core remains intact. That's bad news for the SEC, particularly now that Hooker is entrenched as the unquestioned starter. If the offensive line can become even just passable, Tennessee should lock in one of the Top 10-15 offenses in the nation this fall.

Defense: Tennessee doesn't need an elite defensive performance to assure themselves SEC East contention, but they do need improvement. The Vols finished near the bottom of the conference in just about every major defensive category and were particularly vulnerable against the pass, ranking 122nd in the nation in pass defense.

The key for coordinator Tim Banks will be getting more consistency and playing better on pivotal downs, as Tennessee was among the worst teams in the country on third down. They were excellent at causing chaos in the backfield and with plenty of familiar faces back in the front seven, they should be strong up front once more.

The Volunteer defensive line is led by their two edge rushers, senior Byron Young and junior Tyler Baron. Young is a former junior college transfer who came into his own last fall, tying for the team lead with 5.5 sacks. He played particularly well down the stretch and enters this year as one of the top pass rushers in the SEC. Baron briefly entered the transfer portal over the offseason before deciding to stick around in Knoxville. He's flashed his potential at multiple points during his UT career, but has to become more consistent.

On the interior defensive line, Tennessee loses a big name in defensive tackle Matthew Butler, one of the major reasons UT's rush defense was the strength of the unit as a whole. Juniors Omari Thomas and Elijah Simmons are considered the favorites to man the two tackle spots in this 4-2-5 look, but it will be an open competition likely to drag into the regular season. Simmons is not going to get after the quarterback, but the 350-pounder clogs rushing lanes and should see plenty of playing time in 2022.

Linebacker could be the strength of the unit, as the Volunteers return their top two tacklers from a year ago, Aaron Beasley and Jeremy Banks. Banks is the top playmaker on the defense, a fierce tackler who is fearless as an edge rusher. In addition to notching 128 tackles, he tied Young for the team's sack lead and was a constant pest in opposing backfields. Beasley is your prototypical SEC middle linebacker, a well-built defender who played well in 2021, but leaves you wondering if there's another gear. One other name to monitor is former Texas transfer Juwan Mitchell. Mitchell was one of the Longhorns' top defenders in 2020, totaling 62 tackles during the COVID-shortened campaign. He was projected to play an important role for UT last year but missed essentially the whole season. If he's back and healthy, the Volunteers have a trio of proven, capable linebackers here.

Losing Theo Jackson and Alontae Taylor add more concern to a secondary that was already a major weakness, but Tennessee did receive good news when safeties Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCullough opted to return. The pair are experienced defensive backs who have played a bunch of snaps and understand this program. McCullough is also one of their top playmakers defensively, leading the team with three interceptions.

At corner, senior Warren Burrell will take on a leadership role after starting all 12 games for Tennessee last fall. He played his best ball down the stretch, including a strong showing in the bowl game. The other corner spot is the question, now that Taylor departs. JUCO transfer Desmond Williams and junior Kamal Hadden are considered the two favorites to take over the starting job, but neither bring much proven SEC experience to the table. At the "Star" position, the Volunteers are also hoping somebody steps and replaces Jackson. That could be former Alabama transfer Brandon Turnage, who appeared in nine games and made one start after coming over from the Tide. His lone start last fall saw him earn SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors, so he should be ready for a larger role.

Playing on the other side of this high-powered, up-temp offense, Tennessee's defense is unlikely to put up particularly strong numbers no matter how they're playing. With that being said, more consistency and better play on major downs would go a long way in securing an improved season. It's not unreasonable to think that can happen; even with some major names gone, there's enough pieces at every level for the Volunteers to be improved on this side of the ball.

Special Teams: Special teams is in good hands, as Tennessee returns two proven specialists in kicker Chase McGrath and punter Paxton Brooks, both seniors. McGrath, a former USC transfer, went 12-16 on field goals in 2021, while Brooks averaged 44 yards per punt. The return game will sorely miss Velus Jones, who handled both kick and punt returns, but there are a plethora of options waiting in the wings.

Bottom Line: There is a renewed sense of optimism surrounding Tennessee's football program, an impressive turnaround when you consider the questions the Volunteers faced heading into 2021. There's a real belief that Heupel is the right man to bring the program back to prominence, and Hooker is the best quarterback to play at Tennessee in a long, long time. However, that doesn't mean this team won't face challenges in Year Two of the Heupel era. For one, the SEC is as unforgiving as any conference in college football and the Volunteers go on the road to LSU and welcome Alabama on the crossover. Even more important, the program has a strange history of killing their momentum every year they seem to take a step forward. It's been a strange trend, but one that has persisted through various coaching tenures; end a season strong, gain loads of preseason hype, then flame out a year later. Is this the team that can end that tradition? That doesn't mean they have to win the SEC East or contend for a CFB Playoff for this to be a successful campaign. Instead, winning 8-9 games and performing better against the program's chief rivals seems like an attainable and realistic goal on Rocky Top this fall.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
A former National Champion with the Oklahoma Sooners, Josh Heupel got his start in coaching with the Sooners, serving as a grad assistant in 2004. He bounced around at several different outposts before his big break happened as Missouri offensive coordinator, where his work with Drew Lock helped him secure the UCF head coaching job. After three years in Orlando, he accepted the Tennessee job and led them to a 7-6 debut season. His offensive coordinator is Alex Golesh, who also serves as the team's TE coach. Golesh got his start as a student assistant at his alma mater, Ohio State, and has worked his way around the coaching ranks before his work with Iowa State from 2016-2019 earned him a spot on UCF's spot. At defensive coordinator, Tim Banks enters his second season on the staff. He spent several years on James Franklin's staff at Penn State and before that, time with Illinois, Cincinnati and Central Michigan.

Recruiting Breakdown
Heupel and this staff did a solid job in Year One on the recruiting trail, as they landed the 18th class on the 247Sports composite. There are no five stars in this group, but plenty of quality prospects who should contribute to this new era of Vol football. Defensive linemen Tyre West originally signed with his home state school, Georgia, before flipped to Tennessee. He'll probably play on the inside in the collegiate ranks, but has more than enough juice and athleticism to be a fearsome pass rusher. Joining him on the defensive line is James Pearce, a big get from the Charlotte area who was one of the highest-rated recruits in the talent-rich state of North Carolina. On offense, the two big-name freshmen receivers both have a chance to play right away in this wide-open offense. Kaleb Webb out of Georgia is the higher-ranked player, but Cameron Miller is also likely to see early playing time. Quarterback Tayven Jackson is another name to watch; Tennessee went into the state of Indiana to land the four-star, who looks the part at 6'4", 195 pounds. Jackson is the younger brother of star Indiana Hoosier basketball player Trayce Jackson-Davis.

2022 X-Factor: Walter Burrell, CB
If Tennessee has any hopes of contending for an SEC East Title this fall, they absolutely need better production from their pass defense. That could be made more difficult by the departures of Theo Jackson and Alontae Taylor, but there are still returning pieces. The most important of them has to be Walter Burrell, who is set to take over as Tennessee's No. 1 corner. He started 12 games for the Volunteers a year ago and proved to be a capable, steady defender on the perimeter. Can he be even more and grow into a legit shutdown corner? The Volunteers don't need a Jim Thorpe Award winner to have an improved secondary, but if Burrell is able to take the next step, it bodes well for this team's 2022 hopes.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 8-4 (5-3 SEC)
Offensive MVP: QB Hendon Hooker
Defensive ,MVP: DE Byron Young
Breakout Player of the Year: CB Brandon Turnage
Impact Freshman: WR Kaleb Webb

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