There are a lot of unknowns on Tennessee’s football roster heading into the 2018 season. The Vols welcome in a lot of new players and will be relying on some inexperienced players at certain positions as well. There are a handful of players who come back with experience and flashes of brilliance in their Vol careers, but injuries or other circumstances have cast doubt over them heading into Jeremy Pruitt’s first season as head coach.
Athlon Sports detailed two “wild card” players for all 14 SEC teams in a lengthy piece, citing a wild card player as someone who “is the difference between winning and losing a game in front of 100,000 rabid fans on a Saturday afternoon.”
In Athlon’s piece headed up by Nick Cole, they chose defensive tackle Shy Tuttle and wide receiver Jauan Jennings as the Vols’ two wild card players.
For Jennings, last year went about as badly as it could have. He suffered an injury in the Vols’ first game of the year and never played the rest of the season. Then he was dismissed from the program by interim head coach Brady Hoke with the blessing of then-AD John Currie the week before Tennessee’s last game of the season against Vanderbilt.
Once Phillip Fulmer took over as AD and Jeremy Pruitt was hired as head coach, Jennings began the long process of trying to get reinstated to UT’s football team. He eventually was, but he missed spring practices after going through an offseason surgery.
As a sophomore, Jennings burst onto the scene and made several electric catches for the Vols during the 2016 season. He’ll look to recapture that magic in 2018.
“Jennings was dismissed from the program by the previous coaching regime in November, but he’s back with a new opportunity to prove his worth under new head coach Jeremy Pruitt,” Athlon writes. “An offseason surgery rendered him unavailable for spring practice, robbing the ‘wild card’ from a chance to rebuild chemistry after injuring himself in the season-opening win against Georgia Tech last fall. Jennings caught 40 passes for 580 yards and seven touchdowns during the 2016 season. A return to that level of production would be a huge win for a Volunteers offense in desperate search for playmakers.”
Without Jennings last season, Tennessee’s passing attack floundered. The offensive line play didn’t help, nor did poor quarterback play. But the Vols’ seven other wide receivers combined for just 1,248 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns on 88 catches without Jennings.
Coming out of high school, Tuttle had a lot of promise and potential. He was a borderline four-star/five-star defensive tackle and looked to be a strong foundation piece for Tennessee’s defense. But injuries have plagued him at Tennessee.
Tuttle has been injured more than he’s been healthy in his Tennessee career, but this spring saw him at full strength for the first time since his first spring with the team in 2015 as an early enrollee. And he looks to be the Vols’ starting nose tackle in the new 3-4 defensive scheme.
“It’s widely agreed upon that SEC football games are won and lost in the trenches, so rescuing a program that was 0-8 in the league in 2017 likely will require some serious improvement on both lines,” Athlon’s article states. “Jeremy Pruitt wants to establish a brand of tough, physical football in Knoxville. That’s a start. Tuttle has the ability and the experience to be a driving force in implementing that brand. Can the senior shake off injuries and become the interior line star that Vols fans have envisioned?”
In 23 career games with Tennessee, Tuttle has totaled 46 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two passes defended, three fumble recoveries, and a blocked kick. He’s missed a total of 15 games over his three seasons with the Vols.
Tennessee will need some veterans to step up on a fairly young team this season if Pruitt’s first year at the helm is to be a success. And Jennings and Tuttle are two likely candidates to fill that veteran void.