The Tennessee Volunteers were the latest team in the East to hire a new coach, former UCF head coach Josh Heupel, after nine staff members including former head coach Jeremy Pruitt were fired in January in light of unearthed recruiting violations.
Heupel led the Knights to an impressive 28-8 record in three seasons in Orlando, but he enters a position that inherits the most turnover of any Power 5 program in the country. 35 athletes have transferred out of Knoxville since last September, leaving the Vols a completely different squad than last year.
The offense will be without last year’s starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and its leading rushers in Eric Gray and Ty Chandler, all of whom transferred, as well as its leading receiver in Josh Palmer who’s now on the Los Angeles Chargers.
Heupel and his staff face a tough decision at quarterback, as a contentious battle between sophomore Harrison Bailey, Michigan transfer Joe Milton and Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker has not yet resolved itself. While Milton was highly recruited out of high school and brings an impressive physical toolkit, Bailey impressed as a true freshman and Hooker showed off his dual threat ability in two years as the Hokies’ starter. This leaves the Vols’ coaches with a tough decision to make between three guys who have demonstrated starting talent.
Sophomore running back Jabari Small will be the leader of a backfield that easily has the least in-game experience of any position group on the team as his 26 carries and 117 yards lead all returners. One guy who could make an impact behind Small is Tiyon Evans, a top-ranked junior college transfer out of Hutchinson CC in Kansas, the same school where the Vols picked up Alvin Kamara a few years back.
The receiving core brings back shifty redshirt senior Velus Jones Jr. and sophomore Jalin Hyatt while Mississippi State transfer JaVonta Hyatt will be competing among a group of younger guys for the third spot.
Senior Cade Mays will fill whichever spot necessary on the offensive line while his younger brother Cooper, a sophomore, is a candidate to enter the starting center job. They’ll be joined by junior tackle Darnell Wright, senior guard Jerome Carvin and sophomore guard Javonte Spraggins, an East St. Louis graduate. All of those guys have started a game at Tennessee, and it’s a unit that brings a lot of potential to a new offense.
The Vols lost four of their best defensive players from 2020 to the transfer portal, including Alabama linebacker Henry To’o To’o, Miami defensive end Deandre Johnson, Arkansas State linebacker Kivon Bennett (dismissed from the program in December) and Michigan State linebacker Quavaris Johnson. To’o To’o led the team in tackles while Quavaris Johnson finished third. Deandre Johnson and Bennett led the team with four and a half sacks each. In addition, their top cornerback, Bryce Thompson, is now on the New Orleans Saints.
However, the Volunteers have done well to replace what has been lost. The D-line front is one of the team’s deepest positions as returning players Matthew Butler, Ja’Quain Blakely, Tyler Baron and Omari Thomas will compete for snaps in a group that brings in multiple newcomers.
Redshirt junior Jeremy Banks and senior Texas transfer Juwan Mitchell, who led the Longhorns in tackles in 2020, are poised to be key guys at the linebacker spots. The secondary features many of the defense’s most experienced athletes like seniors Trevon Flowers, Alontae Taylor, Theo Jackson and redshirt senior Kenneth George Jr., who led the team in passes defended last year.
The Vols are an intriguing team heading into 2021, as their range of potential outcomes is massive. They’ve got plenty of guys who have made contributions at various programs and their performance will be a matter of how they will gel under Heupel and his new staff.
Mizzou will look to avenge last year’s blowout loss to Tennessee in an October 2 matchup at Faurot Field, and monitoring the quarterback battle will be crucial in determining how the Tigers will gameplan. Tennessee has three players on the Preseason Media Days All-SEC teams and five on NCFAA watch lists.