Vols will need to lean heavily on newcomers to kick off the Josh Heupel era on Rocky Top
The last few months have been tumultuous for the Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols limped home to a 3-7 record to conclude the 2020 season, followed by an internal investigation into NCAA recruiting violations and ultimately the firing of head coach Jeremy Pruitt. Those are just a few of the highlights.
Tennessee also has seen its fair share of attrition over that span, losing several starters and key contributors to graduation and the transfer portal. That leaves new Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel with an uphill battle to fill those voids. Heupel had very little involvement with Tennessee's 2021 signing class, arriving in Knoxville less than a week before National Signing Day. However, he has done well to keep the defections to a minimum and salvage a top-20 recruiting class for the Vols. There's also room for Heupel to add more pieces to the puzzle over the next few months via the transfer portal.
While the cupboard isn't completely bare on Rocky Top, the Vols do find themselves short on star power, depth, and experience at several positions. In other words, they still need all the help they can get. Some of that help is sure to come by way of several talented newcomers. Here are five such newcomers with the potential to make an immediate impact for the Vols in 2021.
Hendon Hooker, QB
A former four-star recruit out of Dudley High School in Greensboro, NC, Hooker joined Virginia Tech as part of its 2017 signing class. He made 15 starts for the Hokies over the last two seasons, completing 63.1 percent of his pass attempts for 2,894 yards with 22 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. He also rushed for 1,033 yards and 15 touchdowns as a Hokie.
Hooker joins Tennessee as a grad transfer with two years of eligibility remaining. He will have to fend off some quality competition in Harrison Bailey, Brian Mauer, and Kaidon Salter to earn the starting job. However, Hooker's outstanding combination of size (6-4, 220), experience, and athleticism should give him a leg up entering the Vols' wide-open quarterback competition this spring. It wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see Hooker run out on the field as Tennessee's starting quarterback on Sept. 4.
Chase McGrath, K
A graduate transfer from USC, McGrath joins the Vols with two years of eligibility remaining. During his time as a Trojan, McGrath connected on 32 of 42 field goals and 118 of 119 extra points, with a career-long of 52 yards. With former Tennessee kicker Brent Cimaglia transferring to Georgia Tech this offseason, McGrath will enter spring practice as the only scholarship placekicker on the Vols' roster. He's also the obvious favorite to win the starting job. McGrath will likely play a huge role for Tennessee this fall at a highly undervalued position of need.
Tiyon Evans, RB
Evans makes his way to Rocky Top by way of Hutchinson (KS) Community College, where he averaged an impressive 8.8 yards per carry and had two 95-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2019. One look at his highlight tape, and it's easy to see why he was ranked the No. 1 junior college running back in the nation for '21. The 5-foot-10.5, 220-pound running back is the complete package. He's a powerful and elusive runner with great vision and breakaway speed. Evans is also a capable blocker and appears to have good hands as a receiver out of the backfield and as a return specialist.
Now that Eric Gray and Ty Chandler have moved on to new homes via the transfer portal, the Vols are sorely in need of an SEC caliber running back — Evans certainly fits that bill. He's also a great fit for Heupel's offense. There will still be plenty of competition in the running back room. However, Evans definitely has the tools to rise to the top of the depth chart and become one of Tennessee's top playmakers this fall. At a minimum, he should be able to carve out a significant role for himself this season. Evans is already in Knoxville and has three years of eligibility remaining.
Aaron Willis, LB
With Henry To'o To'o and Quavaris Crouch in the transfer portal, Tennessee is looking extremely thin at linebacker heading into the 2021 campaign. That leaves the door wide open for Willis to carve out a prominent role for himself at a big position of need for the Vols. A four-star recruit out of Life Christian Academy (VA) and St. Frances Academy (MD), Willis is the crown jewel of Tennessee's '21 recruiting class. He's an explosive hitter with good speed and great instincts that plays bigger than his size (6'0", 210). He’s also versatile enough to play either inside or outside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Tim Banks' scheme. Willis is already on campus and set to participate in spring practice. He has tons of upside and is expected to emerge as one of the Vols' top options at linebacker this season.
Byron Young, DE/LB
Edge rusher is another position of need for Tennessee after losing its top two pass rushers from last season — Deandre Johnson (transferred to Miami) and Kivon Bennett (dismissed from the team). That provides a golden opportunity for Young to step in and provide some much-needed help for the Vols in the pass rush department. The No. 2-ranked junior college defensive end in America (according to 247Sports), Young last played football at Georgia Military Academy in 2019. An explosive player with a phenomenal first step, Young also possesses outstanding speed and strength for his size (6'3", 240). He also has a motor that doesn't quit. Young will likely have his hand in the dirt as a defensive end in Banks' defensive scheme but is also flexible enough to play linebacker. He is already on campus and has three years of eligibility remaining. The soon-to-be 23-year-old has the skill set to ascend to the top of Tennessee's depth chart and contribute right away.
5 more newcomers to watch:
Jeremiah Crawford, OT
Kaemen Marley, ATH
Kaidon Salter, QB
KaTron Evans, DT
Miles Campbell, TE
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.