After a disastrous 2017 season that resulted in the firing of Butch Jones and a chaotic coaching search, there was nowhere to go but up for Jeremy Pruitt in his first season in Knoxville. Two wins last season over ranked opponents (Auburn and Kentucky) should give Vols fans hope for 2019, but the more important developments occurred in the offseason with a top-15 recruiting class and the additions of new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and wide receivers coach and Tennessee legend Tee Martin.
Previewing Tennessee's Offense for 2019
The Vols' offense behind QB Jarrett Guarantano showed potential in wins over Auburn (30 points, 396 total yards) and Kentucky (24 points, 412 total yards) but was mostly inept throughout the SEC schedule.
Enter Chaney. In 2018, Chaney led a Georgia offense that ranked second in the SEC in scoring (37.9 ppg), with quarterback Jake Fromm passing for more than 2,700 yards. The greatest challenge for Chaney will be to maximize Guarantano’s potential, assuming that the holes in the offensive line have been addressed.
Depth at quarterback will be an area of concern with the loss of graduate transfer Keller Chryst. The Vols do not have another scholarship quarterback on the roster who has taken a snap in a college game.
The greatest priority heading into the 2019 season was strengthening the Tennessee offensive line, which left Guarantano running for his life for much of last season. This focus was clear during the early signing period — the Vols inked coveted recruits Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris, whom many recruiting experts consider two of the top offensive linemen in the country.
The health of star offensive tackle and rising junior Trey Smith will play a major factor in what Chaney and offensive line coach Will Friend are able to do in 2019. Smith has been a dominant left tackle for the Vols, but blood clots in his lungs have continually sidelined him for much of his time in Knoxville.
At wide receiver, senior Marquez Callaway is the obvious choice as the Vols' downfield threat, joined by returning playmaker Jauan Jennings. Josh Palmer is a returning starter as well and is expected to make a jump from his 23 receptions, 484 yards and two touchdowns.
A wild card for the success of this offense: Can rising senior Dominick Wood-Anderson live up to the potential that made him one of the most sought-after tight ends in the country out of junior college?
The Vols boast a stable of running backs heading into 2019, but junior Ty Chandler emerged last season as the featured back. Chandler's big-play potential and his pass-catching abilities out of the backfield make him the clear favorite to carry the bulk of the workload. The question is whether incoming freshman Eric Gray will emerge as a No. 2 playmaker in the backfield. Junior Tim Jordan will likely compete for that role as well, hoping that his 118-yard performance against West Virginia in the 2018 season opener wasn’t a fluke.
Previewing Tennessee's Defense for 2019
While the offensive line is the Vols' greatest area of focus, the defensive line has suffered the most turnover. Pruitt will need to replace four starters who accounted for 150 tackles, nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss. Tennessee could get production from top-ranked junior college defensive tackle Savion Williams, as well as Emmit Gooden, who is the only returning defensive lineman who had more than 13 tackles last season. This, however, will likely be the team's weakest area heading into the season.
The Vols come into the season deep at the linebacker position as the defense continues its transition to the 3-4. Returning starters Daniel Bituli and Darrell Taylor will be locks to play major roles. Pruitt also won on the recruiting trail with highly coveted linebackers Quavaris Crouch and Henry To'oto'o. One of the biggest questions to watch coming out of fall camp will be if Crouch will compete for one of the two remaining starting positions that are up for grabs.
The secondary is arguably the Vols' strongest unit. Sophomore cornerback Bryce Thompson earned Freshman All-America honors in 2018 and could emerge as the top defensive player on the team. Tennessee will also feature returning starters Alontae Taylor, Baylen Buchanan and Nigel Warrior.
Previewing Tennessee's Specialists for 2019
Junior placekicker Brent Cimaglia finished 2018 with 77 percent field goal accuracy (10-of-13), with just one miss inside 40 yards, and punter Joe Doyle consistently kept return yardage to a minimum. The Vols did not allow a kickoff or punt return for a TD last season.
Callaway is expected to be the punt returner again in 2019, after he returned a punt for a touchdown against Charlotte. However, there’s less certainty regarding who will return kickoffs, which was the only area where Tennessee struggled on special teams. Chandler and Thompson are the most likely options for Pruitt.
Pruitt’s rebuild of the Vols program is still a work in progress, but the addition of Chaney and Martin to the coaching staff, along with an improved offensive line, should put Tennessee back in a bowl game for the first time since 2016. That won’t necessarily placate the Vols’ rabid fan base, but it’s a step in the right direction.