The Vols will be down several key players when they take on Georgia Tech to open up their 2017 season. The Vols are without at least one projected starter for the season in linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., and offensive lineman Chance Hall would have at least provided solid depth if not started along the offensive line this year. But he too is out for the season.
Then a report emerged over the weekend that linebacker Austin Smith is expected to miss the game as well due to injury.
Defensive tackle Shy Tuttle and wide receiver Josh Smith will dress out for the game, but their impact should still be minimal as they ease back into action from their respective injuries.
So of the remaining healthy players, who will be the X-factors for the Vols in their season opener against Georgia Tech?
The X-factors won’t necessarily be the MVPs of the game, but they have the potential to make a big play or sway the game in Tennessee’s favor because of a match-up they’ll draw in the game or because of their overall play-making ability.
Here is who will be Tennessee’s X-factors when they take on Georgia Tech to open their 2017 season.
Offense: Jauan Jennings, WR
Both teams are going to run the ball in this game. A lot. But each team’s respective passing attacks could be the deciding factor, and the Vols have the best wide receiver on either teams’ roster. Jauan Jennings will be the team’s No. 1 target for the entire season barring injury, and he should get off to a good start in this game against a Yellow Jacket passing defense that was ranked 68th in the NCAA last season in passing yards allowed per game.
Expect either Quinten Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano (or maybe both) to get Jennings involved early and often. And his big play ability should be a deciding factor in the game.
Defense: Rashaan Gaulden, DB
As our film study showed last week, Tennessee’s secondary, especially the safeties, are going to be crucial to containing Tech’s flexbone/option offense. And that’s why Bob Shoop’s decision to use nickel back Rashaan Gaulden a lot on defense could prove to be a smart choice.
Gaulden already plays a bit like a safety/linebacker/corner hybrid anyway when he plays closer to the line of scrimmage at times, and he’ll be asked to do even more of that in this game to stop the run. But Gaulden will be just as pivotal in making sure Tech’s passing attack doesn’t rip off some big gains through the air as well. He’ll be one of the most important players on Tennessee’s defense, and his performance will go a long way in dictating how this game goes.