Heading into year five and following a slightly disappointing season in 2016 many are thinking the Vols are heading into a step back rebuild/reset season, but that may not be the case.
Many are thinking the 2017 season will be a 7-5/8-4 team at best and because of the recent dip in recruiting and departure of players to the next level, are forgetting the still deeply talented roster that the staff has built.
The defensive line is anchored by four and five-star players like Khalil Mckenzie, Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips, Darrell Taylor and Jonathan Kongbo all heading into their sophomore and junior seasons, and now with the upgrade at defensive line and strength coach this group is ready to take the next step.
The next level of the defense is held down by players like Darrin Kirkland Jr and Quart’e Sapp – former four stars with great athleticism, speed and strength.
Kirkland heading into his third season, should have a great grasp of the defensive calls. Sapp has some similarities to Reeves-Maybin in his first couple seasons. He is slightly undersized, but physical in the run game and fast enough to cover tight ends in the passing game, with great sideline to sideline speed. The upgrade at strength and conditioning should help Sapp bulk up and play beyond the potential.
The secondary is anchored by players such as Todd Kelly Jr, Micah Abernathy, Evan Berry and Rashaan Gaulden. Kelly and Abernathy held down the safety positions last year, and with another season of experience and another year under Bob Shoop, as well as the upgrade at defensive backs coaching position, they should be poised for a big step up. Gaulden was the starter at the nickel position and excelled last season because of his aggressiveness in the run game and tenacity coming off the edge on a blitz. He also has the speed and awareness to cover slot receivers in the passing game.
On the offensive side of the ball, the O-line is bookended by five-star tackles Drew Richmond and Trey Smith. Richmond, who had a decent first season at tackle and is getting great reviews in the weight room, and Smith, who just signed with the team this offseason but is already putting up monster numbers in the weight room as we’ve seen in videos, have a chance to grow into a an impressive duo. Veterans Chance Hall and Brett Kendrick bring stability to the position as well.
The interior is led by Jashon Robertson, who has been a solid player on the line since his freshman season. Though he’s battled through injury the last couple seasons, he’s played through them and shown why he is the leader and anchor of the line. The center and other guard position are held down by Coleman Thomas and Jack Jones, with Venzell Boulware also in the picture. Thomas is an athletic center who pulls from the center position on many of the run plays and play actions. Jones is a former four-star with a mean streak and tenacity on the interior.
The quarterback position is a battle between four-star junior QB Quinten Dormady known more as a pocket passer, and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano, a former five-star dual threat. Dormady has seen little live action, but in his action he has thrown some impressive balls and shown his talented arm. Guarantano has won the offseason hype competition, everyone has heard about his ability throwing the ball with great strength and accuracy and his athleticism running the ball as well.
The consensus is that Tennessee should get at least good quarterback play from either one of these players, and as we’ve seen the last couple of seasons, this team goes as far as the QB will take it. The running back group is led by young faces all around. John Kelly saw limited action but was great in his chances and captured the love of the fans despite starting the season as a third-team player. The No. 2 back is expected to be incoming freshman Ty Chandler, who is an explosive shifty back that can get to the next level and make big splash plays like Kamara last season.
The wide out position is led by junior Juaun Jennings, who has been a leader on the field since last season, and is poised to take the step into the number one receiver position. Behind him are players like Brandon Johnson and Tyler Byrd who have all the athleticism, and quickness to be successful. Byrd showed great burst and agility last season and flashes of being a great slot player. He is also known as one of if not the fastest players on the team and could be great on jet sweeps and slant routes.
This team may not be five star behind five star like Alabama, but it does have plenty of talent and with all the upgrades at coaching the 2017 Vols may have a chance to surprise some teams this season.