Tennessee has a new head football coach for the fifth time since 2008. The Volunteers hired Josh Heupel from UCF in January to replace Jeremy Pruitt, who was fired amid an investigation that revealed sweeping recruiting violations within the football program. Athletic director Phillip Fulmer stepped aside after three years.
Danny White was hired as athletic director from UCF, then brought Heupel with him. Their job is what Fulmer and Pruitt failed to do: Restore Tennessee football.
"I promise you that we are going to embark on becoming what we're capable of becoming as a football program day-by-day and chasing and winning championships," said Heupel, a national-title winning quarterback at Oklahoma who was 28-8 in three seasons at UCF.
Previewing Tennessee's Offense for 2021
The mainstays of Tennessee's offense under Pruitt are gone. Wide receiver Josh Palmer and offensive lineman Trey Smith graduated. Running backs Ty Chandler and Eric Gray transferred, as did quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. But offense is Heupel's specialty, and Tennessee has the pieces to field a competitive offense despite horrible units in Pruitt's tenure.
Heupel's first task is to develop a quarterback. The Vols added Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, but freshman Kaidon Salter was dismissed from the team in June. Hooker threw for 2,894 yards and 22 touchdowns to seven interceptions in the past two seasons with the Hokies. He and Harrison Bailey are two starting candidates. Brian Maurer is a wild card. Michigan transfer Joe Milton planned to join Tennessee after spring practices. He started five games in 2020 for the Wolverines, throwing for 1,077 yards and four TDs.
The wide receiver position looks ready to perform better in a receiver-happy offense after a system that failed to utilize skill players on the perimeter. Jalin Hyatt (20 catches for 276 yards and two touchdowns) and Velus Jones Jr. (22 catches for 280 yards and three touchdowns) should thrive. Jones, who called the new offense a "receiver's dream," is the leader in the group that also features Ramel Keyton and Cedric Tillman, as well as junior college addition Andison Coby.
Jabari Small looks to be the next big-time Vols running back from Memphis. He rushed 26 times for 117 yards as a freshman in 2020. Junior college addition Tiyon Evans will vie for carries. The unit, though new, could wind up being a strength.
The offensive line features two former five-star prospects after having four in 2020. Tennessee needs Cade Mays and Darnell Wright to play to their lofty rankings. They also have to performer better in pass protection after a brutal 2020 and the transfers of tackles Jahmir Johnson and Wanya Morris. Mays could be an answer at tackle. K'Rojhn Calbert, Jerome Carvin, Cooper Mays and Javontez Spraggins are among the top interior options.
Previewing Tennessee's Defense for 2021
Tennessee's defense features many familiar faces up front and in the secondary. But the Vols were gutted at linebacker by transfers. Heupel will have to piece together a better defense than he had at UCF, where his units ranked among the nation's worst, but the talent level at UT is lacking.
Alontae Taylor is arguably the most important player on either side of the ball. The veteran cornerback is a well-respected leader. He'll anchor a secondary that needs to create more turnovers. Warren Burrell and Kenneth George Jr. will compete for a starting spot opposite Taylor. Trevon Flowers, Theo Jackson and Jaylen McCollough return at safety after dominating the playing time last season.
Linebacker is the most glaring concern on the roster. Henry To'o To'o, Tennessee's top defensive player, and Quavaris Crouch, a former top recruit who started next to To'o To'o, both entered the transfer portal. What's left? Jeremy Banks is the top returner with 38 career tackles. Aaron Beasley, a former running back and safety, could fill a starting spot. Morven Joseph could play either inside or outside linebacker. Roman Harrison could be Tennessee's best pass-rushing linebacker. Freshman Aaron Willis and Texas transfer Juwan Mitchell are expected to push for snaps in the fall.
The success of the defense will likely come down to the defensive line, which had five seniors take advantage of the NCAA's decision to allow 2020 seniors to return. The group has to be more disruptive than it was last season. Matthew Butler leads the veteran bunch. LaTrell Bumphus, who is recovering from an injury, played well in 2020. Omari Thomas, a former top recruit, could rise into a key role. Former OLB Tyler Baron could excel at defensive end.
Previewing Tennessee's Specialists for 2021
Paxton Brooks averaged 43.6 yards per punt in 2020. USC transfer Chase McGrath and walk-ons Toby Wilson and JT Carver will compete at kicker after Brent Cimaglia transferred. With Brooks at punter and Jones on returns, UT should be fine on special teams.
Tennessee lost some of its top talent to transfer, leaving Heupel to rebuild a roster that slumped to 3–7 in what was expected to be a strong 2020. The rebuild at UT won't be an easy nor a quick one, but Heupel's offense should score enough that the Vols will be competitive more often than they probably should be, given the roster picture.
National Ranking: 56
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(Jalin Hyatt photo by Andrew Fergson/Tennessee Athletics)