Josh Heupel walked into a tumultuous Vols program when Tennessee hired him in January 2021. Jeremy Pruitt had been fired weeks prior, and the Vols faced a mass exodus through the transfer portal.
Heupel flipped the culture, brought in transfers and developed the current roster to turn in an impressive first season with record-setting offense and overachieving defense.
Heupel is one of only four UT coaches since 1941 to win at least seven regular-season games in his first season. There's optimism for the encore, especially with the return of quarterback Hendon Hooker and wide receiver Cedric Tillman. "There is so much known versus a year ago, when everything was unknown," Heupel says.
Previewing Tennessee's Offense for 2022
Heupel injected life into the Tennessee program with his up-tempo offense. The Vols scored 39.3 points per game and set many single-season program records, including points, total yards and touchdowns.
They'll chase more records with Hooker and Tillman back. Hooker, who took over the starting job early in the season, had the best single-season passer rating in program history and ranked third nationally. He's on the fringe of the Heisman conversation after throwing 31 TDs and only three interceptions and rushing for five scores.
Tillman (64 catches, 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns) is the top target in a wide receiver room that has mostly unproven potential. The Vols are counting on Jalin Hyatt (21 catches, 226 yards, two touchdowns) to make a junior jump to offset the departures of Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton. Jimmy Calloway or Ramel Keyton could step up. Chas Nimrod, Kaleb Webb and Marquarius White are exciting freshmen. USC transfer Bru McCoy could also factor into the mix. Jacon Warren and Princeton Fant give Tennessee steady play at tight end.
Tennessee's rushing attack was a pleasant surprise. Jabari Small (796 yards, nine TDs) is the standout returner from a group that produced 217.8 yards per game. Sophomore Jaylen Wright is the No. 2. Freshman Justin Williams-Thomas could be hard to keep off the field.
The position that can take Tennessee's offense to a different level is the offensive line. The unit dealt with injuries in 2021 and allowed 44 sacks, the most in the SEC. If it can be a solid group, the Vols will have a potential juggernaut offensively. UT returns four starters, including long-time tackle Darnell Wright and guard Jerome Carvin. Right tackle is the question mark after Cade Mays' departure.
Previewing Tennessee's Defense for 2022
Tennessee's defense improved in 2021 thanks to late-career development from defensive tackle Matthew Butler and defensive backs Theo Jackson and Alontae Taylor. All three are now gone.
UT has defined strengths and weaknesses, the latter of which were Heupel's focus in the spring. The Vols did well in getting into the backfield with a program-record 102 tackles for a loss. But they struggled on third downs and against the pass, allowing opponents to convert 42.1 percent on third downs and 273.2 passing yards per game to rank last in the SEC.
The Vols will need familiar faces to elevate their play to a different level to improve those weaknesses.
The backbone of Tennessee's defense is a pair of big-time edge rushers. Byron Young (11.5 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks) was a star and finished the season playing well. Tyler Baron is back across from Young after briefly entering the transfer portal. Heupel wants to see more consistent pressure from the pass rush, which starts with Baron and Young on the edge.
Safety is the group ready to rise and steady the secondary with experienced returners Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCollough. The duo accounted for five interceptions. Sophomore Christian Charles will push for playing time.
Cornerback development is essential for the Vols, and Tennessee's ceiling could hinge upon it. Senior Warren Burrell is a returning starter. Kamal Hadden, Brandon Turnage, De'Shawn Rucker and junior college transfer Desmond Williams are in the mix. Doneiko Slaughter is the leader to replace Jackson at the Star position.
Linebacker is more stable than a season ago when injuries, transfers and inexperience plagued the group. Jeremy Banks led UT with 128 tackles as a junior, turning his on-field intensity into big numbers. Aaron Beasley and Solon Page III have developed. Juwan Mitchell is a potential X-factor for the defense after battling injuries.
Omari Thomas, Da'Jon Terry and Elijah Simmons, a 6'2", 350-pound behemoth, are the top choices to replace Butler's interior production. Thomas was steady in the back half of his sophomore season. LaTrell Bumphus and Kurott Garland are keys on the defensive line.
Keep an eye on freshmen Joshua Josephs, James Pearce and Tyre West in the front seven.
Previewing Tennessee's Specialists for 2022
Tennessee has stability with its core specialists. Paxton Brooks posted a career-best 44 yards per punt. Kicker Chase McGrath was consistent on field goals inside 40 yards. UT has explosive options to replace lost production in the return game.
Tennessee exceeded expectations in Heupel's first season. There's reason to think the Vols will be better in 2022, especially if players step up at cornerback and on the defensive line. Tennessee knows its core pieces offensively, and Hooker-to-Tillman is as exciting a duo as UT has had in some time. Heupel's first-year success stemmed from individual improvement leading to collective growth. That'll be the key again for the Vols to make a jump.
National Ranking: 18
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