Vols vs Indiana - Tax Slayer Bowl
Head coach Jeremy Pruitt for the Tennessee volunteers facing Indiana in the 2020 Tax Slayer Bowl.

It was a wild season for the Tennessee football team. One that saw a historically bad start and then a strong finish that will give the Vols the nation’s second longest winning streak when the 2020 season kicks off.

It was a season that saw Tennessee find lots of different ways to win while starting three different quarterbacks.

Here’s how the Vols graded out.

Quarterback

Jarrett Guarantano was Tennessee’s unquestioned starting quarterback when the season began in September, but the redshirt-junior signal caller was dreadful in the first month of the season and contributed largely to losses against Georgia State and BYU.

Brian Maurer got his first career start against Georgia and would start three staright games for the Vols, but Maurer was knocked out in the first half against Mississippi State and Alabama. Maurer flashed some talent but made too many mistakes and couldn’t reclaim his starting position when he returned from injury.

JT Shrout played against South Carolina and UAB going 13-for-27, passing for 179 yards and a touchdown. Shrput flashed with a long second half touchdown against South Carolina but was mostly ineffective in his short action.

Then there was the Jarrett Guarantano redemption tour. Guarantano came off the bench against Mississippi State, Alabama, South Carolina and Kentucky and beside the rogue QB sneak at Alabama helped Tennessee win games.

Guarantano then returned to the starting lineup against Missouri where he threw for 421 yards in a road win. Guarantano struggled in the Vols final two games of the season throwing for no touchdowns and three interceptions.

Guarantano finished the season with a 59% completion percentage while throwing for 2,158 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Grade: C+

Running back

It wasn’t a strong year for Tennessee running backs who mostly couldn’t find much momentum before a strong finish to the season from freshman Eric Gray.

Ty Chandler led the Vols in rushing with 655 yards while averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Chandler only had three touchdowns in his junior campaign after scoring four his sophomore season.

Tim Jordan had the second most carries for Tennessee on the season rushing for 428 yards and one touchdown. Jordan also earned a lot of snaps due to his strong pass blocking skills.

Eric Gray changed Tennessee’s running game in the regular season finale and the bowl game. The Memphis native ran for 246 yards and three touchdowns against Vanderbilt before earning Gator Bowl MVP rushing for 86 yards and a touchdown while adding 34 receiving yards.

Freshman linebacker Quavaris Crouch added two touchdowns in short yardage situations.

Grade: B-

Receivers/Tight Ends

Tennessee’s receivers were thought to be the strength of this team entering the season and when the Vols got capable quarterback play the receivers shined.

Jauan Jennings opted to come back for his senior season and had a monster season hauling in 59 catches for 969 yards and eight touchdowns. Jennings had two touchdown games against BYU and South Carolina while receiving for over 100 yards against the Gamecocks, Georgia and Missouri.

Marquez Callaway turned in a senior season where he was one of the best big play receivers in the nation. Callaway averaged 21 yards a completion while recording 635 yards and six touchdowns. 

Josh Palmer may not have had quite the breakout season some may have been expecting, but the junior was a good third option hauling in 34 catches for 457 yards. Palmer also came up big in November road wins at Kentucky and at Missouri.

Tennessee’s receiver production after those three was pretty limited, but Tyler Byrd caught five passes for 66 yards and a touchdown and Ramel Keyton gained 104 yards.

At tight end Dominik Wood Anderson didn’t have a huge year but did gain 268 yards and caught a touchdown verse Vanderbilt.

Austin Pope doesn’t show up much in the stat sheet, but the tight end was crucial to the Vols running game this season.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Tennessee’s offensive line made the biggest improvement of any position group from Jeremy Pruitt’s first to second season.

Freshman offensive tackles Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright helped radically improve the pass blocking going from 23 sacks in 2018 to 21 in 2019. The numbers don’t tell the whole story though as Tennessee’s quarterbacks had significantly more time to throw in 2019.

Tennessee’s run game wasn’t great in 2019, but it was greatly improved from the 2018 season. Brandon Kennedy returned after suffering a season ending injury after just one game in 2018. Trey Smith also came back after missing November and most the offseason due to blood clots.

The pair, along with Jerome Carvin at right guard, greatly improved Tennessee’s abilities to run between the tackles.

While they didn’t start the majority of the year K’Rojhn Calbert and Riley Locklear both played major role on the offensive line.

Grade: B-

 

Defensive Line

No position group improved as much as the season went on as Tennessee’s defensive line did in 2019. The Vols front line got gashed against Georgi State but improved as the year went on and were a rock in the Vols improved run defense in the second half of the season.

Matthew Butler led the group with 45 tackles in 2019 while also recording 2.5 sacks. Greg Emerson had a solid redshirt freshman year making 30 tackles and 4.5 tackles for a loss.

Aubrey Soloman and LaTrell Bumphus each had solid seasons recording two sacks each. Darrell Middleton had a strong second half of the season to make 28 tackles on the season.

The group’s improvement is a testament to defensive line coach Tracy Rocker who was clearly getting the most out of his unit by season’s end. 

Tennessee could be due to have a very good defensive line in 2020 if the guys continue to develop the way they did throughout the season.

Grade: B

 

Linebackers

Tennessee somehow survived the 2019 season playing two linebackers the vast majority of reps this season.

Daniel Bituli missed the first two games of the year, but still made 88 tackles and three sacks on the season playing as one of the best sidelines to sideline linebackers in the SEC.

Henry To’o to’o had an outstanding freshman season earning freshman All-American honors on his way to making 72 tackles and five for a loss while forcing three quarterback hurries.

Due to early season transfers Tennessee didn’t have much depth behind the starters. JJ Peterson made 13 tackles on the season playing in relief of To’o to’o and Bituli.

At the outside linebacker spot Darrell Taylor had a solid senior season recording 10 sacks, a new career high, and more importantly was a more consistent pass rusher than he was his junior season. Kivon Bennett started on the opposite side as Taylor and while he wasn’t a star, he was a breakout player for Tennessee as he had six tackles for loss and two sacks on the season.

Freshmen Quavaris Crouch and Roman Harrison saw time at outside linebacker. Crouch made 28 tackles and half a sack while Harrison recorded two sacks on the season.

Grade: B+

 

Secondary

It was an overall year with shaky moments for a Tennessee secondary that benefitted from playing poor quarterbacks.

Tennessee started the year without star sophomore Bryce Thompson and Tennessee struggled badly as Georgia State torched the Vols and Alontae Taylor had an inexcusable bust against BYU that blew Tennessee’s late lead. 

Tennessee began to hit stride late in the season as Bryce Thompson got back into the swing of things and Alontae Taylor began to play better.

Shawn Shamburger had an outstanding season at nickelback making 47 tackles and three sacks while also intercepting a pass.

Nigel Warrior turned in an unexpected All SEC season at safety making 70 tackles while intercepting four passes and breaking up nine passes.

Tennessee rotated Jaylen McCollough, Theo Jackson and Treyvon Flowers at the second safety spot all season.

Grade: B-

Special Teams

Tennessee’s special teams was a bright spot in 2019 as kicker Brent Cimaglia had an excellent season and was robbed of All SEC honors.

Cimaglia went 23-for-27 on the year including being 9 of 11 from over 40-yards on the season.

Tennessee also got two special teams’ touchdowns on the season as Marquez Callaway returned a punt for a touchdown and Daniel Bituli blocked and recovered a punt for a touchdown against South Carolina. 

Tennessee’s punt game took a step back in 2019 as Joe Doyle and Paxton Brooks alternated punting duties. Brooks averaged 42 yards a punt while Doyle averaged just over 41 yards.

Paxton Brooks was good in place kicking duties and kicked a successful onside kick in the Gator Bowl win over Indiana.

Grade: B+

 

Coaching

Jeremy Pruitt and his coaching staff failed early in the season as the Vols weren’t ready to play against Georgia State. Tennessee also had no business losing to BYU and while Taylor’s huge mistake deserved much of the blame, Pruitt and company aren’t completely blameless for the Vols inability to put away the Cougars.

However, they deserve a ton of credit for keeping the team bought in after the poor start of the season. Tennessee completely turned the season around after the Florida loss as Tennessee went 7-1 down the stretch.

Tennessee won four games in 2019 in which they weren’t favored as the Vols routinely outplayed opponents down the stretch of the season to take a six-game win streak into 2020.

Grade: B+

Overall

If you told any Tennessee fan before the season that the Vols would go 7-5 with a January bowl win I think every fan would have taken it, but as the season unfolded it’s hard not to think “what if” after the Vols poor start to the season.

Still, Tennessee broke losing streaks to Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt in 2019, and finished 5-3 in the SEC for just the second time in the decade.

Tennessee moved ahead of the bottom and middle of the SEC east in 2020 to finish in third place. If Tennessee wants to get back to competing with the big boys in the east, they have to separate themselves from the Missouri, Kentucky and South Carolina’s of the league.

Sweeping those teams in 2019 was a good start to that, but it’s about doing that consistently. 

Grade: B

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