Now that wide receiver Josh Malone has made it official and declared for the upcoming NFL draft, the Vols will be without three of their top offensive weapons heading into the 2017 season. Josh Malone joins running back Alvin Kamara as two Tennessee junior offensive players to forego their senior seasons as Vols, and senior quarterback Josh Dobbs will be graduating and also won’t be part of the team next season.
Throw in the departure of offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, and Tennessee’s offense will have a very different makeup next year than they did this season.
The quarterback battle between Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano will get the majority of the attention this offseason, but running back and wide receiver will also see a shakeup with Kamara and Malone going to the NFL. And their production won’t be easy to replicate even with talented young players stepping up to replace them.
Alvin Kamara was a dynamic play-maker at running back for the Vols in his two seasons at Tennessee. Kamara totaled 1,294 rushing yards and 16 scores on just 210 carries while also hauling in 74 receptions for 683 yards and seven scores. Kamara also returned a punt for a touchdown in 2015 and averaged 10.1 yards per punt return on 28 career returns.
As an offensive player, Kamara averaged 6.96 yards per touch on his 284 combined carries and receptions. That kind of electrifying play-making ability won’t be easy to replace.
Malone may not have been as explosive as Kamara was his entire career, but he finally lived up to the hype from his recruitment with a breakout junior campaign this past season. After catching 54 passes for 636 yards and three scores in his first two seasons, Malone exploded for 50 catches for 972 yards and 11 touchdowns this year. Malone’s 972 yards are the 10th-most in a single season in Tennessee history, and his 11 touchdowns tied Robert Meachem (2006) and Cory Fleming (1993) for the third-most in program history.
How does Tennessee replace the production of these two early departures? With some talented, albeit somewhat inexperienced, players already on the roster.
Running back John Kelly was thrust into a much bigger role this year than expected before the season began. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara were supposed to be the one-two punch at running back for the Vols. But with Hurd’s ineffectiveness and eventual departure and Kamara suffering a few injuries along the way, Kelly was asked not only to carry a bigger load, but also to make a few starts. And he responded admirably, gaining 630 yards on just 98 carries, scoring five touchdowns as well. Kelly finished second on the team in rushing behind Josh Dobbs and had a gaudy 6.4 yard per carry average.
As long as Kelly stays healthy and continues to develop, the running back unit should be in good hands next year. Toss in another year from former four-star recruit Carlin Fils-Aime and the addition of the highly-touted Ty Chandler into the mix in this year’s recruiting class, and the Vols should still have enough firepower out of the backfield.
Receiver is a little murkier, however.
Vol fans and coaches have to be excited about the potential Jauan Jennings brings to the table. Jennings burst onto the scene this season as a sophomore, bringing down 40 catches for 580 yards and seven scores. Jennings was easily the second-best receiver on the team and was second in every category behind Malone. He is the heir apparent to take over lead receiver duties.
But behind Jennings there’s a pretty big gap when it comes to known commodities.
Josh Smith has been inconsistent at best in his time at Tennessee, but he will absolutely be a part of the rotation next season. Tyler Byrd showed flashes as a freshman this year, but there’s talk he may be more needed at cornerback rather than receiver for next year. Brandon Johnson also showed some potential as a freshman, as did Marquez Callaway in limited action. Latrell Williams sat out this season with an injury, but his speed should allow him to see the field even if it’s just as a situational role. Tennessee also currently has three receivers committed in the 2017 class.
The talent is there at receiver, but the production isn’t yet. Receiver will be an extremely young unit in 2017, and the Vols will be relying on mainly sophomores and freshmen behind Jennings.
The Vols will have plenty of talent to replace both Alvin Kamara and Josh Malone next season. But right now most of that is based on hope and potential rather than actual production. That’s why there will be many questions about Tennessee’s offense heading into next season.