For the second year in a row, the Vols will be one of the most experienced teams in the nation in terms of returning starters.
College football pundit Phil Steele recently came out with his list of returning starters for every program in the nation. The Vols, with 17 total, are right near the top – coming in tied for fifth nationally and second in the SEC, behind only LSU – in the 2016 edition of his annual list, which placed the Vols sixth nationally heading into 2015 with 18 returning starters at that point.
Tennessee returns nine starters on the offensive side of the ball and eight on defense in 2016. Left tackle Kyler Kerbyson and receiver Von Pearson are the only players departing the offense. Safeties LaDarrell McNeil and Brian Randolph and defensive tackle Owen Williams are the starters leaving on defense. Outside of the left tackle spot left by Kerbyson, the Vols treat every other starting position that is vacant as more of a rotation, so there really isn’t a ton to replace for the Vols in 2016.
That also holds true for special teams, which aren’t accounted for in Steele’s figures. Tennessee brings back its starting kicker, punter, kickoff returner, kickoff specialists, place kicker and many key figures on the coverage and return teams as well.
Steele points out that this category has its limitations – noting that Alabama and Clemson, the two teams that played for the title this past season – were relatively low on returning starters heading into 2015. But there’s also data that points to a high number of returning starters equalling improvement for a team.
“Last year there were 26 teams that returned 16 starters or more, including their QB,” Steele notes. “Of those 26 teams, 19 had a better record in 2015 than they did in 2014. Five had the same record, and only two of the 26 had a weaker record.”
So for those hoping UT can move from nine total wins to 10 or more in 2016 – there’s some data that says it is likely to happen.