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2021 Football Opponent Previews: Tennessee Volunteers

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A familiar face leads a team of unfamiliar faces in what might be a...ROCKY season in Knoxville

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 02 Taxslayer Gator Bowl - Indiana v Tennessee Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Catch up on previous 2021 opponent previews!

Central Michigan

Kentucky

Southeast Missouri State

Boston College

Tennessee doesn’t know how to do anything calmly or in an orderly fashion.

After firing Butch Jones, the Volunteers went on a coaching search that wound up being a comedy of errors, where Greg Schiano and Mike Leach were almost hired, Athletic Director John Currie was fired for bungling the search so badly, previously-ousted football coach Phillip Fulmer seized power as AD, and then they hired the 40th guy on their list, Jeremy Pruitt, to become head coach.

What did Pruitt do? Well, he talked about how he didn’t know what asparagus was, pulled a Barry Odom to save his 2019 season, then lost six games in a row during COVID while only beating the absolute worst teams on the schedule (yes, Missouri is on that list). However, the administration in Knoxville was so tired of his antics that they invited the NCAA in to investigate potential recruiting violations. And woooo boy, did they find them: enough for both Level I and Level II violations of the entire coaching and recruiting staff, costing most of them their jobs as well as seemingly forcing Phil Fulmer to retire from his AD position. As put by UT Chancellor Donde Plowman, “What’s astonishing is the number of violations and their efforts to conceal their wrongdoing.” If you remember the “McDonalds bags of cash” tag that floated around the internet at the beginning of 2021... yeah, that was Tennessee. Just dudes putting cash in a McDonalds bag (important side note: used? unused? where did they acquire the bags? Is McDonalds in on this?) and blatantly handing it to recruits was the level of laziness and uncaring for the cheating they were doing.

If you suck at your job or are bad at it, you can usually get an extra few years if you’re likeable. Jeremy Pruitt was not likeable.

So Tennessee went on an Athletic Director search first, tabbing Central Florida’s AD Danny White to become the new AD at Rocky Top. White, in turn, tried to lure away James Franklin from Penn State, Tony Elliott from Clemson, and Sonny Dykes from SMU: all three told him “no”. So, in a serendipitous turn of events, Danny White turned to his fourth choice - his old football coach at UCF, Josh Heupel - to become his new football coach at Tennessee. Remember, when White was replacing Scott Frost at UCF, Heupel was his fourth choice there as well. How many times have YOU been hired by the same guy at two different jobs where you were the fourth best choice for the job?

Anyway, here’s what Tennessee did in 2020:

2020 Tennessee Schedule Results

The good news: Tennessee beat every team that was at least eight spots worse than them in SP+! The bad news: only three teams were eight spots worse than the Vols! After kicking the ever-loving crap out of our beloved Tigers the Vols lost six in a row, only breaking the streak against the worst P5 team of all time in 2020 Vanderbilt.

This was not a good team after October 3rd and then half the team left: 27 players, to be exact, hit the transfer portal once Heupel was announced as head coach, including All-American linebacker Henry To’o To’o, quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, and eight other blue chip recruits. The Vols did add some names via transfer portal - Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker, Kansas d-lineman Da’Jon Terry, USC d-lineman Caleb Tremblay - but the Vols will be short on playing experience and the team will look completely different from both a style standpoint and a roster standpoint.

Coaching Staff

Syndication: Florida Times-Union
Josh Heupel
Caitie McMekin via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Josh Heupel - 1st Year - 0-0 (0-0)

Well, hello again, Mr. Heupel. Last we here in Mizzou land were monitoring the 2000 Heisman-runner up he was leading a warp-speed, empty-calorie offense that could paste any defense that they had an athletic advantage over but would be suffocated by any defense with a pulse. He took that same scheme to UCF and picked up right where Scott Frost left off: 12 straight wins, only losing to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl in his first year followed by a 10-win season in 2019 and a 6-win season in 2020.

The question, of course, is can that offensive success be replicated at Tennessee? Heupel’s offense is a modification of the old Baylor system from the early 2010s that gives the quarterback to only one or two quick, easy reads in the passing game and uses three flavors of “power” in the running game. It’s simplistic and it’s fast and it can absolutely wear out a defense if the offense can get one first down and start humming. The downsides are obvious: once you figure out the reads you can bait the quarterback to make the throws you want, the quarterback rarely throws in the middle of the field so you can usually combo cover receivers, and it takes a mobile quarterback and a lightning-quick running back to catch the defenders flat-footed. It was also still pretty novel when Heupel brought it to Mizzou in 2016 but now - especially at Alabama and Ole Miss - this type of offense is, a.) saturated, and b.) perfected by others. It certainly won’t take anyone by surprise so I’m really curious if Heupel restructures the attack or goes full-on Mike Leach and stubbornly sticks to what made him successful in the first place. Regardless, it is a style that can attract offensive talent and cut talent-deficiencies when done well and...well, Tennessee is at a bit of an experience and talent deficiency for the next few years.

Coach Heupel’s Resume

Assistant Staff

Alex Golesh - Offensive Coordinator: Golesh has been a tight ends coach at Toledo, Illinois, and Iowa State before joining Heupel’s UCF staff last year for the 2020 season while getting a bump to co-offensive coordinator. While mostly known for his recruiting chops he’s obviously well versed enough in the “Heupel-style” offense that there isn’t a question of if he will bring something different to the table. The question, rather, is if Heupel and Golesh craft a different style of offense together and what that could possibly look like.

Tim Banks - Defensive Coordinator: Banks was most recently the co-defensive coordinator at Penn State from 2016-2020 where his defenses ranked 25th, 10th, 11th, 10th, and 14th. He’s used to operating with elite talent and has put plenty of guy into the NFL so he will be a seamless reputation fit on Rocky Top. He inherits a defense that was Top 35 last year but loses almost everybody, so it will be tough to judge his scheme and gameday acumen on the 2021 results, especially since this will be the first time he gets paired with an offense that (potentially) runs as fast as Heupel’s previous offenses go.

Mike Ekeler - Special Teams Coordinator

Joey Halzle - Quarterbacks

Jerry Mack - Running Backs

Kodi Burns - Wide Receivers

Glen Elarbee - Offensive Line: you should remember this guy, the one who inherited A.J. Ricker’s 2015 mess of a Tiger offensive line and made them at least somewhat competent by the next year. Turns out he’s just super loyal to Heupel which... yeah, if I was a line coach who was in an offensive system where the ball was thrown in 0.8 seconds and kept sacks super low... yup, I’d be super loyal to that system as well.

Rodney Garner - Defensive Line

Brian Jean-Mary - Linebackers

Willie Martinez - Secondary

Alec Abeln - Offensive Analyst: why am I highlighting a guy who makes less than $20k a year who sits in a cave and grinds tape 23.5 hours a day? (Editor’s note: I sincerely hope he makes more than that) Because it’s a Mizzou guy! Abeln was a depth piece on those ‘16 and ‘17 Missouri offensive lines who got a few starts in places due to injury and general lack of bodies. He graduated after the 2017 season and looked to get into coaching, first joining the Ole Miss staff as a graduate assistant and now back with his old OC and o-line coach at Tennessee. Good luck, Alec... except for your game on October 2nd, anyway.

Offense

Last year’s Tennessee offense was mediocre at almost everything, but completely fell apart in passing downs and could not generate big plays. The 50th best offense ranked 68th in rushing and 65th in passing but were in the bottom ten of every big play statistic you can think of. And that was with an experienced quarterback, two talented upperclassmen running backs, and a pretty good receiver in Josh Palmer. Thanks to graduation and the transfer portal, they have none of that coming back. Jarrett Guarantano is now at Washington State, Eric Gray is a Sooner, Ty Chandler is a Tar Heel, and Josh Palmer is a Charger. Add to that a brand new offensive line and you can start imagining a season of complete offensive ineptitude. However, the Heupel offense is a great neutralizer for talent and depth if they catch you napping so these brand new Volunteers can still be dangerous. Spring ball didn’t really give any clue as to what this team will look like in the fall so I’ll preview the guys who are currently on the roster with the understanding that, by the time Missouri gets to these guys, the blood infusion of transfer talent will most likely congeal at the top of the depth chart. For now, here’s the guys who are left from the Pruitt regime.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Auburn
Harrison Bailey
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback - Harrison Bailey - Freshman

Harrison Bailey Stats

The second-best quarterback of the 2020 recruiting class committed early to Tennessee - November 29th of 2018, to be exact - and proceeded to sit and watch the Volunteers implode while seeing the field in garbage time. After three games of subbing in to close out a beat down he finally made three starts to finish out the season. Bailey did...alright?...with a 70% completion rate and almost 600 yards on 68 attempts. He took a ton of sacks and chose risky passes but he also didn’t have much to work with as the season went on. Former Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker arrived on campus for spring ball and had rave reviews...but it’s spring ball, and almost all reviews of a new coaching staff are rave reviews. Between Hooker, fellow veteran Brian Maurer, and the sixth best dual-threat quarterback of the 2021 class Kaidon Salter arriving in the fall, there’s almost no way that Bailey wins the starting job: Heupel favors rocket-arm deep ball throwers and Bailey tends to throw shorter, more accurate passes. However, if Bailey does win the starting gig, then that means he’s starting to realize some of that 5-star potential that was projected in high school.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Arkansas
Jabari Small
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Running Back - Jabari Small - Freshman

The leading returning running back is a second-year freshman with 26 carries and 117 yards to his name. His 4.5 yards per carry is pretty good for a freshman but the Vols problem wasn’t running the ball, it was doing stuff once they fell behind the chains. Regardless, Small is the most experienced Vol in the running back room and likely has first dibs when 3-star freshmen Jaylen Wright and Tiyon Evans arrive on campus in the fall.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Tennessee
Velus Jones, Jr.
Knoxville News Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

Wide Receiver - Velus Jones, Jr. - Graduate Student

The sixth-year senior from Saraland, AL committed to USC out of high school as a part of the recruiting class of 2016. He was a useful slot guy for the Trojans for three years but had difficulty finding consistent playing time so transferred to Tennessee for his redshirt senior year. And then COVID happened so now he gets to do it all again, this time as the longest-tenured Volunteer receiver on the team. His 22 catches on 31 targets tells you exactly how frequently he was targeted - although he still somehow ranked 4th on the team in targets (have I mentioned the Vols sucked out loud at passing the ball?) - and 280 yards certainly doesn’t scream “MAJOR RECEIVING THREAT”. However, as you all know by now, the Missouri secondary will be very new to the whole “playing at the college level” thing and Jones will be joined by three big receivers, both in stature and prestige - three blue-chip receivers standing 6’1”, 6’3”, and 6’4” - so Jones should be freed up to be a little more maneuverable and thrive in the Johnathon-Johnson-type role that Heupel utilized in his time in Columbia.

Defense

Last year’s defense ranked 34th and - like most Saban-defensive disciples - excelled at wiping out big plays. Unlike Saban’s squads, however, the Vols struggled in stopping the easy stuff and that was with an All-American taking the field for them. The losses from this side of the ball are actually fewer in number but heavier in impact, specifically with Henry To’o To’o transferring to Alabama, Quavaris Crouch transferring to Michigan State, Deandre Johnson transferring to The U, and Bryce Thompson a free agent with the Saints. Still, you can say the Vols return six of their top ten tacklers which is a rare positive retention stat, yet at the same time recognize that they are losing most of their havoc creators. And with only a handful of high school defenders populating the incoming recruiting class, new DC Tim Banks is going to have to scrounge through the couch cushions to find some depth pieces to fill out an SEC-competent two-deep.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt
Matthew Butler is 295 and wants a piggy-back ride
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line - Matthew Butler - Graduate Student

Butler is a typical 3-4 defensive tackle: 21 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 pass broken up, countless double team blocks absorbed. Butler is enough of a force up the middle to occupy blockers and free up the edge rushers and linebackers to make a play and will be a sturdy anchor for a line that returns all their starters...but only 43 tackles and 3 tackles for loss. It’ll be interesting to see if Banks keeps the 3-4 alignment or moves towards a more pursuit-oriented 4-3 alignment to make the line more disruptive.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Tennessee
Tyler Baron
Knoxville News Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

Linebacker - Tyler Baron - Freshman

As previously mentioned, the top three linebackers all transferred away from Rocky Top and their fourth linebacker was dismissed for drug and firearm charges, leaving young, second-year freshman Tyler Baron the seasoned veteran of the linebackers. He logged 241 snaps last year but only collected 11 tackles on 16 attempts. The good news? He was fifth on the team in tackles for loss (with 3). Blue-chipper Aaron Willis will join the Vols this year and will most likely have a clear runway for starting time while Baron will be the steady hand to pace the linebacking corps.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Tennessee
Trevon Flowers
Knoxville News Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

Defensive Back - Trevon Flowers - Junior

You might remember this dude from his career day against Missouri last year where he posted 10 tackles and a tackle for loss. Behind To’o To’o, Flowers was the defender with the most snaps last year at 669, making 24 tackles on 38 attempts with a tackle for loss and two passes broken up. He’s more of a center-field-type safety than a run enforcer as he and Jaylen McCollough mostly played back and let the aforementioned Bryce Thompson lay the wood near the line. I can’t imagine their roles change too much, especially since the Vols need experience playing the pass in the secondary.

So what does it all mean?

2021 Tennessee Schedule

Allow me to state the obvious thing here first: Tennessee, buddy...you really can’t afford to lose to Bowling Green to start the season. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, I’m just saying the ingredients are there and this Bowling Green team is particularly awful so... good luck, Coach Heupel.

There’s just so many unknowns with this team that it’s hard to figure out what they’re going to do. Does Hooker start at quarterback? Will he have enough competent weapons to throw to? What do Huepel and Golesh do with the offense? Will the Hyper-speed-hyper-simplistic style still work? How will a defense full of guys that used to play with an offense that made their jobs easy react to an offense that puts them on the field 4-5 more possession per game?

Because of all the uncertainty swirling around Rocky Top it’s going to be best to get this team early, which, fortunately, the Tigers do. Now, it will be a week after Missouri takes an east coast trip with a tricky opponent which can be tough to come back from. The good news for Missouri? They get the Vols a week after Tennessee plays Florida in The Swamp; if you subscribe to body-blow theories and believe that Florida will be top tier once again, that’s a positive thing.

Football coaches obsess over things they can control, so all of these questions are driving Heupel insane but surely don’t rattle Eli Drinkwitz at all. Missouri will have four weeks of tape on the new Volunteers and should be ready for whatever is thrown at them. Their ability to effectively (and consistently) shut that down is up for debate, but there shouldn’t be any surprise at that point. The Tennessee game kick starts a three-game homestretch where the Tigers should shoot to end up at least 2-1 at the end of it; beating Tennessee is the first step in that process and - while there’s rarely such thing as a “guaranteed win” as Missouri in the SEC - this should be the best opportunity to feel good about a matchup against a peer program that the Tigers should have in 2021.