Tennessee’s football team hasn’t gotten off to a strong start in either of Jeremy Pruitt’s first two seasons in Knoxville. That small trend is worrisome for Tennessee due to a few things related to a COVID-19 season.
First, the Vols won’t have any cupcake games in the 10-game SEC season. While Tennessee will be favored in each of its first two matchups, they are far from easy wins — especially considering the Vols upset loss to Georgia State a year ago.
Add that onto the fact that the Vols have cancelled practice and had 44 players miss practice — mostly stemming from contact tracing procedures meaning the players missed 14-days — there is cause for concern.
That’s a worrisome stat for Tennessee, especially considering all SEC teams may not be playing by the same rules when it comes to contact tracing guidelines. If the Vols want to avoid a poor start to Pruitt’s third season, they’re going to have to lean on their strengths.
Offensively, that starts up front, where Tennessee returned nearly every contributor from a year ago while adding Georgia transfer Cade Mays, who is projected to start if the NCAA approves his appeal and grants him eligibility this fall.
Seven offensive linemen started a game for Tennessee last year, and all seven are back. Jahmir Johnson and Riley Locklear have also started games in their careers and played a season ago.
Tennessee’s question marks at the receiver and quarterback position speak for themselves. If Tennessee’s offense wants to improve from last year, they must improve on their 4.1 yards per carry that ranked second to last in the SEC.
The Vols need to be able to run the ball successfully early in the year to help control clock and set up the passing game.
“The running game, I’m very impressed with right now,” quarterback Jarrett Guarantano said. “I think it’s coming along. Eric Gray and Ty Chandler have been doing a real good job. Being able to have a whole offensive line come back and having some key staples there, it’s looking very good and I’m very excited for it to continue.”
By all measures Tennessee should be one of the best offensive lines in the SEC and should improve in grinding out yards in the run game.
Trey Smith, a preseason All-American and the left guard, is one of the best run blockers in the country. Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright started at offensive tackle as freshmen a year ago, and, while Morris earned freshman All-American honors, both should be stronger and better in the run game after a year in the college weight room.
The strength of the Vols defense should be the defensive back field, where the Vols lost only one major contributor from a year ago.
"I feel like we will be a strength of the team because we have the most experience in the back end,” safety Theo Jackson said. “Most of us have been playing since freshman year, and we’ve all built up that camaraderie together. I just feel like with us being that close and listening to Coach (Derrick) Ansley, we can be a really good defensive backs unit.”
At cornerback, Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson have started nearly every game since their freshman year in 2018. Kenneth George Jr. started a handful of games a year ago and earned playing time in nearly all, which should be expected again in 2020.
Nickelback Shawn Shamburger is one of the most underrated players on both Tennessee’s team and in the SEC, recording 47 tackles and three sacks a year ago. Tennessee has to replace Nigel Warrior at safety, which will no doubt be a major challenge, but Tennessee has pieces there.
“We do have a lot of options,” defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley said. “A lot of guys that can do different things. We had a couple of guys who got nicks and bruises early on, but for the most part we got a lot of guys back from last year outside of Nigel (Warrior). We should be deeper in the back end — a lot of game experience and playing time back there. We need those guys to be the strength of the defense and lean on those guys a lot more this year."
It’s no secret that Jeremy Pruitt thinks the start to any good defense is good defensive back play that gives you flexibility to be aggressive in the front seven. Tennessee’s defensive backs need to live up to that, especially early in the season.
Tennessee will have to replace Darrell Taylor’s 10 sacks, and it may need some time for young players to grow into that role. The Vols may have to dial up some blitzes to get to the quarterback, and if they do, they need their back end to be ready.