There wasn't a whole lot to be optimistic about at this point last year for the Tennessee Volunteers. First-year head coach Josh Heupel had just inherited a seemingly uninspired team that went 3-7 under Jeremy Pruitt. Further complicating matters, there was an investigation into recruiting violations by Pruitt and members of the former staff, followed by a mass exodus of players that left the roster short on both talent and depth. The future of Tennessee football appeared ominous at best. However, it didn't take long for Heupel and the new-look Tennessee coaching staff to shift the culture on Rocky Top. Heupel's high-octane offense also lived up to its lofty billing, helping the Vols to a surprising seven-win season and a bowl berth.
There are still concerns and question marks for the Volunteers heading into Year 2 of the Heupel era. And only time will tell if the long-term future of Tennessee football will be a success. However, there are plenty of reasons for Tennessee fans to be excited moving forward, something that seemed highly unlikely 365 days ago. Here are three such reasons for optimism as the Vols look to take another step forward in 2022.
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1. The return of Hendon Hooker
There isn't a more impactful position in football than quarterback, and Tennessee returns one of the best in the nation for 2022 in Hooker. The Virginia Tech transfer appeared to be a non-factor heading into the 2021 campaign following the summer addition of Michigan transfer Joe Milton III, who was ultimately named Tennessee's starting quarterback to kick off the '21 season. However, Hooker took over for an injured Milton in the second game of the season and never looked back on his way to one of the best seasons ever for a Tennessee quarterback.
Hooker would go on to be the primary catalyst for one of the most explosive offenses in the country — completing 68 percent of his pass attempts for 2,945 yards with 31 touchdowns against just three interceptions. He set new single-season school records for both completion percentage and fewest interceptions. His 181.41 passer rating ranked first in the SEC and third nationally, setting yet another new school record in the process. The dual-threat signal-caller also was highly productive with his legs, serving as the Vols' second-leading rusher with 620 yards and five scores on the ground.
2. Eight starters return for Tennessee's record-setting offense
Tennessee's improvement on offense last season didn't come as a huge surprise. After all, Heupel is an offensive guru and inherited one of the worst offenses in the country, so improvement was inevitable. But no one expected Heupel to transform the Vols' offense into a record-setting powerhouse in just his first season. Tennessee finished the '21 season ranked ninth nationally in total offense (474.4 ypg) and seventh in the FBS in scoring offense (39.3 ppg). A vast improvement over the previous season in which Tennessee ranked 102nd nationally in total offense and 108th in scoring offense. The Vols also broke eight single-season offensive school records in 2021, including total points scored (511), total yards (6,174), touchdowns (67). and total first downs (316) to name a few.
The good news is that eight starters will return for the Vols on that side of the football in 2022. Hooker will also have his favorite target back in wide receiver Cedric Tillman. Tillman is not only the Vols' top returning pass-catcher but also the SEC's leading returning wide receiver following a breakout season in which he racked up 64 catches for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns. Tillman will be riding a seven-game touchdown streak into the '22 season as well. In addition to Hooker and Tillman, the Vols also return four starting offensive linemen, leading rusher Jabari Small, and their top two tight ends from last season in Princeton Fant and Jacob Warren.
Tennessee does have some pretty big shoes to fill with the departure of All-SEC offensive lineman Cade Mays to go along with wide receiver standouts Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton. But there is little doubt that one of the most exciting and explosive offenses in the country will pick up where it left off last season and perhaps even take another step forward.
3. Stability and continuity
If there is one thing that Tennessee football has been sorely lacking over the last 15 years or so, it's stability. Over that span, the Vols have been plagued by adversity and turmoil at seemingly every turn. That was most definitely the case when Heupel took over last season. However, it didn't take long for Tennessee's new head coach to change the culture and establish a firm foundation in and around the program. And for the first time in a long time, there are few distractions on Rocky Top, which is refreshing, to say the least. Even the dark cloud of potential NCAA sanctions seems to be fading away to some degree.
Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is continuity. Tennessee returns almost its entire coaching staff from last season intact, a real rarity in this day and age of college football. The lone exception is wide receiver coach Kodi Burns, who recently joined the New Orleans Saints' staff. While Burns will be missed, Heupel's decision to promote offensive analyst Kelsey Pope to wide receivers coach keeps a familiar face in the fold.
Unlike this time last year, when Tennessee players were once again tasked with familiarizing themselves with new coaches, new playbooks and new systems on both sides of the football, continuity on the staff should afford the Vols the luxury of hitting the ground running this spring. With the exception of newcomers, the learning curve should be almost non-existent. And there will be a comfortability factor for players and coaches alike that should pay big dividends, as the Vols can now focus solely on improving and expanding on last season's success.
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.