Jeremy Pruitt- Tennessee vs. Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE, AR - NOVEMBER 07, 2020 - Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Tennessee Volunteers at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, AR. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee’s 2020 campaign was a reversal of its 2019 campaign. The Vols started strong, winning their first two games before losing six straight and ending the season 3-7. 

Tennessee finished fifth in the SEC East after being predicted to finish third by the media.

Here’s how the Vols graded out.

Quarterback

Tennessee’s 2020 season may have been a reversal of 2019, but poor quarterback play and a rotation of Vols starting under center was a common theme between the two seasons.

Jarrett Guarantano started Tennessee’s first seven games, playing the majority of each game. The fifth year senior completed 62% of his passes for 1,112 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions.

It was turnovers that plagued Guarantano in 2020, seemingly coming at the worst times. Two of Guarantano’s interceptions came in back-to-back drives against Kentucky, both going for Wildcat touchdowns.

Guarantano also threw a costly, 100-yard, pick six at Auburn that changed the complexion of the game.

On top of the interceptions, Guarantano also fumbled five times this season. 

After Guarantano was benched, Harrison Bailey and J.T. Shrout earned the majority of snaps at quarterback.

Bailey threw for 578 yards in only 40% of the attempts Guarantano had. The true freshman also threw four touchdowns and two interceptions with a 70% completion percentage.

Bailey showed composure in his freshman season but failed to push the ball down field. Bailey will compete for the starting job in his sophomore season. 

Shrout flashed potential with his strong arm, throwing for 315 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.

Shrout has transferred to Colorado since the season ended.

Grade: D-

Running back

Sophomore Eric Gray and senior Ty Chandler split the carries for Tennessee this season, earning 157 and 100 carries a piece. 

Gray made a big jump from his freshman to sophomore season becoming the Vols' go to back, earning 772 yards and four touchdowns 

Gray was also a reliable pass catcher finishing second on the team with 30 catches. The Memphis native totaled 254 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns.

Chandler totaled 456 yards on the season with his longest running totaling just 21 yards. The Nashville native matched Gray with four rushing touchdowns.

Neither Gray nor Chandler’s running style fit Tennessee’s power running scheme which led to more limited success in the Vols’ rushing game.

Gray will likely be Tennessee’s number one back next season while Chandler’s future with the Vols is unclear. The senior could return for a fifth season due to new NCAA eligibility rules, but he could also turn pro or transfer for a final season.

Grade: B-

Receiver/ tight end

Tennessee’s receivers were unable to find consistent production this season, but the lack of consistency at quarterback certainly didn’t help.

Tennessee entered the season trying to replace leading receivers Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway. Josh Palmer stepped up in the lead receiver role and played well catching 33 passes for 475 yards and four touchdowns, all of which came in the Vols’ first five games.

We said in the preseason that Tennessee would have to replace Jennings and Callaway by committee and that is where they struggled.

Deangelo Gibbs opted out before the season began and Velus Jones Jr. flashed at times but couldn’t find consistency having four games with less than 10 yards.

Freshman Jalin Hyatt showed why UT coaches are so high on him, totaling 276 yards and two touchdowns, but once again consistency was an issue for the young speedster.

Brandon Johnson recorded 19 catches and 231 yards before announcing plans to transfer, but sophomore Ramel Keyton was the unit’s biggest disappointment. After flashing as a freshman, Keyton tallied just nine catches for 76 yards in his sophomore season despite being a frequent target of Guarantano.

Tight ends weren’t a main focus of Tennessee’s 2020 offense but Princeton Fant and Jacob Warren each saw their roles increase as the season progressed. Fant recorded 12 catches for 103 yards and a touchdown while Warren added six catches for 73 yards.

Grade: C-

Offensive line

This grade will be  more reflective of the unit’s performance due to expectations than any other position group because of the high expectations of the offensive line entering the season 

The Vols starting offensive line included 24 total stars coming out of high school and two preseason All SEC selections in Trey Smith and Wanya Morris.

The self nicknamed “TVA” was expected to be one of the SEC’s best but struggled in pass protection, allowing 29 sacks on the season.

Sophomore offensive tackles Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright struggled on the season, failing to develop from their freshmen seasons in a shortened offseason due to COVID-19

Tennessee's offensive line was solid in the running game, helping lead to Tennessee’s running backs to tally 4.7 yards per carry despite a lack of chunk plays in the run game.

Grade: C-

Defensive line

It was a tumultuous season for Tennessee’s defensive line. The unit had key players miss the majority of fall practice due to COVID-19 protocols and had its first year coach Jimmy Brumbaugh fired four games into the season.

Despite returning every major contributor from a season ago, the defensive line’s production dropped. Key players from 2019 like Greg Emerson and Darrel Middleton failed to recreate their production from a season ago.

Nevertheless, through strong depth Tennessee’s rushing defense ranked fifth in the SEC in rushing defense, giving up 140 yards per game.

Matthew Butler led the group with 43 tackles and two sacks while Kurrott Garland was second on the defensive line with 22 tackles.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Tennessee’s linebackers had more turnover on it than any other unit on the Vols’ defense entering 2020. Tennessee had to replace inside linebacker Daniel Bituli’s 86 tackles and outside linebacker Darrell Taylor’s 8.5 sacks.

Henry To’o To’o was waiting in the wings to replace Bituli after starting beside him in 2019. To’o To’o had a strong season, recording 76 tackles and an interception. Still To’o To’o didn’t quite live up to expectations in his sophomore season, not making an All SEC team after being a preseason Second Team selection. 

The real problem for Tennessee was not finding consistency beside To’o To’o. Junior Jeremy Banks and sophomore Quavaris Crouch split time besides To’o To’o and both struggled. Crouch totaled 57 tackles and Banks totaled 28 tackles but each struggled horribly in pass coverage as the Vols’ were awful defending the middle of the field.

Tennessee didn’t do any better replacing Taylor as the Vols' pass rush faltered all season, helping lead to Tenenessee’s pass defense ranking 11th in the SEC. 

Kivon Bennett started at outside linebacker across from Taylor last season and was starting to hit his stride after a slow start to the season before getting kicked off the team in November.

Deandre Johnson started 2020 strong, recording three sacks in the opener while earning SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors. Johnson production dropped off greatly after the opener, however.

Johnson and Bennett would each record 4.5 sacks on the season. 

Roman Harrison and Tyler Baron spelled Johnson and Bennett with Harrison recording two sacks and Baron recording one.

Grade: C

Defensive backs

Tennessee had to replace All SEC selection Nigel Warrior in the secondary but no other key pieces entering 2020. With young pieces back Tennessee’s defensive backs were expected to make a jump forward this season.

That didn’t happen as the secondary failed to reach expectations, starting with problems in the middle of the field.

Nickelback Shawn Shamburger was one of the SEC’s best in 2019 but failed to return to form in 2020, first being suspended for the season’s first two games, then getting benched after returning against Georgia.

Tennessee failed to replace Warrior production as sophomore Jaylen McCollough struggled while he dealt with an ankle injury. Trevon Flowers started beside McCollough and while Flowers 63 tackles ranked second on the team, the junior struggled in pass coverage.

Tennessee was better at cornerback, especially Bryce Thompson who was the star of the defense, recording 36 tackles and two interceptions.

Alontae Taylor and Kenneth George earned reps across from Thompson most the season but struggled with consistency which led to a bigger role for sophomore Warren Burrell as the season wore down.

Grade: D+

Special teams

Brent Cimaglia was perhaps the biggest strength of the 2019 Vols, making 23-of-27 field goal attempts as a consistent scoring machine.

That wasn’t the case in 2020 as the Preseason All SEC First Team selection made just five-of-nine field goal attempts as he dealt with an injury. The senior has announced plans to return for his senior season.

Punter Paxton Brooks was inconsistent on the season but improved from his 2019 campaign, averaging 43.6 yards per punt while pinning 17 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

Grad transfer Velus Jones. Jr had a solid season as a returner, averaging 22 yards per return with a long return of 40 yards.

Grade: C

Coaching

2020 wasn’t Jeremy Pruitt’s finest year. From the inability to stabilize the quarterback position to his defense’s regression, the Vols failures fall squarely on the third year head coach’s shoulders.

After watching Bailey and Shrout to end the season, it seemed clear that they should have been given opportunities earlier in the season due to Guarantano’s struggles.

Pruitt’s handling of Shrout also led to the redshirt sophomore transferring following the end of the season.

A disappointing third season has Jeremy Pruitt below .500 play in his head coaching tenure and on the hot seat entering 2021.

Grade: D 

Overall

It was a failure of a season for Tennessee no matter how you spin it. Not only were the Vols unable to play rivals Georgia, Alabama and Florida more competitively, but the Vols took a step back, losing games to Arkansas and Kentucky.

Tennessee was unable to find an offensive identity for the second straight season under Jim Chaney and it’s the quarterback position isn’t more sound now than it was entering the season.

Perhaps most disappointing was Tennessee’s defensive regression. With nine starters returning and most of its coaches retained, Tennessee’s points per game went up from 21.7 to 30.1 points per game. Even if you look at Tennessee’s SEC only games in 2019, the Vols allowed just 23.3 points per game.

Grade: D

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