Tennessee fans are eager to see what first-year head coach Josh Heupel will bring to the field this coming fall season. Admittedly, it’s no surprise why the fans are so restless – Heupel looks to bring a fast-paced, highly volatile offense to the Volunteer State in hopes of waking some of the Tennessee faithful still fast asleep holding over from last year’s squad.
There are some still questioning the efficacy of Heupel’s brand new offensive strategy; more accurately, who will execute it? After all, this past offseason gave way to turnover the Tennessee football program hadn’t seen in decades, and key positions such as running back and O-line were left almost barren when the dust had settled.
Here’s a look at some of the new faces the offense expects to see this fall.
Battle for starting QB
Virginia Tech’s former starting quarterback, Hendon Hooker announced his intent to transfer to the Vols in January and immediately became a fan favorite to win the starting position.
It’s no surprise why, either. Hooker’s natural dual-threat playstyle compliments Heupel’s up-tempo offense well, and it stands to reason that a transfer under a first year coach has as much of an opportunity as anyone holding over from the current roster such as sophomores Harrison Bailey or Brian Maurer.
“I was looking for a place to call home, [somewhere] that I could communicate well with my coaches,” Hooker said to Austin Price and Chris Low in January. “Somewhere where I could showcase my talents to the best of my abilities.”
Joining Hooker from the transfer market is former Michigan quarterback Joe Milton. In his five starts at Michigan, the former four-star prospect threw for 1,000 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions before being replaced after a lackluster start against Rutgers in week six. Michigan media pins this unusual drop-off in production to a nagging thumb injury Milton suffered in the offseason.
Tennessee also added the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the 2021 class in Kaidon Salter, though his status on the depth chart is questionable after a suspension in early March.
A new, untested backfield
Eric Gray and Ty Chandler, two of the Vols’ top running backs departed from the team as well. The duo was a bright spot on a seemingly unmotivated offense under Jeremy Pruitt, combining for 1,452 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns in 2020. This presents a major challenge to the new administration -- one that will look to implement the run as a primary weapon often.
If the Orange and White game is a testament, however, the Volunteer faithful have little to worry about as far as backfield production is concerned. Jaylen Wright and Tiyon Evans look to pick up right where Gray and Chandler left off, along with previously underutilized sophomore Jabari Small. Though Evans did not participate in the spring game, his accolade as the No. 1 ranked JUCO prospect is certainly something to take note of when looking to fill shoes such as Gray and Chandler.
Wright has enormous upside as well. The freshman signee has shown a burst of speed similar to that of Gray, and his early touchdown in the spring game proves he is looking to make an immediate impact for the Vols this season, despite some reported consistency issues in spring practice.
Strong receiving core grows deeper
Perhaps the area for most potential among new faces is at receiver. In total, Heupel and the Volunteers added five receivers to complement the additions in the quarterback room. These names include Mississippi State transfer Javonte Payton and JUCO transfer Andison Coby, as well as three freshmen prospects in Julian Nixon, Kaemen Marley and Walker Merrill.
Merrill, especially, is seen by some as a star in the making. The four-star prospect from Brentwood was also unable to show his skills in the Orange and White Game, but presents a tough mindset and exceptional route-running ability to an already talented receiver core.
“He’s going to be a special player here as his career continues to go on,” Coach Heupel said.
Coby and Payton are lightning quick, to put it simply. The two join the Vols via the state of Mississippi, Payton a transfer from Mississippi State and Coby from Northeast Mississippi Community College. They also bring a huge upside to an offense that wants to go fast at all times.
Payton has shown he can thrive in bursts. The Nashville native torched LSU’s defense from the slot, finishing with six receptions and 122 yards against what was at the time a top-10 defense.
Rounding out the receiver room are Nixon and Marley. Both are big, physical receivers that have experience at different positions in high school, namely tight end, safety and corner. Look for Nixon to fill some possessions at tight end along with incoming freshmen Miles Campbell and Trinity Bell.
In the trenches
The prematurely dubbed “TVA” of last season didn’t exactly pan out despite a plethora of NFL talent on the roster.
To start, Trey Smith and Brandon Kennedy were lost to the NFL draft. Sometimes, stories write themselves; Smith in particular is a player nearly impossible to replace.
Kennedy’s departure will sting as well, as leadership will be an attribute that is hard to come by for such a young team. Kennedy’s consistency at center is something many Tennessee fans could find was taken for granted in his six years of holding down the position.
Wanya Morris and Jahmir Johnson were lost to the transfer portal soon after Pruitt’s firing, bringing the total number of last year’s remaining starters to one: Cade Mays. He won’t go at this alone, however. Tennessee added three linemen to the team in the offseason: William Parker, Jeremiah Crawford and Amari McNeil.
Crawford is another JUCO transfer. The 6’6 tackle was recruited by Heupel at UCF, and his experience at the position will be more than welcome on a Vols roster that seems to be growing closer and closer to recruiting tackles off the street.
Parker is perhaps the most exciting addition. The Nashville native is a three-star prospect that chose the Vols over Alabama and reclassified to get a head start in spring training.
“He just is raw to the game, has to learn what to do, how to do it, but the fact that he’ll play so fast when the ball is snapped, he’ll be just fine,” Offensive Line Coach Glen Elarbee said regarding Parker.
McNeil is being eyed as a project that will pay off for the offense’s quick tempo. He was originally designated as a defensive lineman, but has instead worked drills with the O-line in hopes of making the switch. His official position has yet to be determined.
McNeil stated in an interview that he “always knew he was underrated,” and picked Tennessee over schools such as Minnesota and Memphis on National Signing Day.