Five Takeaways: Tennessee’s Growth This Summer Will Define The 2021 Season

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    The spring has already come and gone, as the Vols wrapped theirs up on Saturday with the O&W game. The offense showed flashes at times, on the ground and through the air. As the Vols settle into summer workouts, Josh Heupel declared that the QB competition is “Wide Open”, as each one showed off their skills on Saturday.

    There were positives for each quarterback on Saturday. Harrison Bailey was poised in the pocket, getting the ball down the field and not holding it long. For Hendon Hooker and Brian Maurer, they both showed flashes in their own right, especially getting outside the tackles and making plays on the run. The room could grow soon, as Michigan transfer Joe Milton is expected to jump into the fray.

     Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

    As Josh Heupel discussed the QB room, he stressed how important the upcoming months will be for the position.

    “I’ve been through enough quarterback battles as a player or as a coach to know that there’s so much time as you leave spring ball. We’ve had 15 practices. We’re going to have a lot more than that when we get to training camp. They get a chance to sit back now and kind of re-digest everything that’s gone on this spring. Get a chance to go through some installs this summer. They get a chance to coach it, own it a little bit on their own.”

    Heupel added, “They get a chance to learn from the mistakes and they have an opportunity to come back a much better and different football player by the time that they get to training camp, and you’ve got to allow your players to grow through this offseason. I think that’s important at the quarterback position, but it’s true everywhere, and you’ve got to judge players for who they are today, not where they were yesterday. You’ve got to give kids an opportunity to make that movement during the June and July process.”

     

     

    The WR room should be a tremendous help, as Velus Jones Jr., Cedric Tillman, Jalin Hyatt, Ramel Keyton, Andison Coby and Jimmy Calloway all got in on the action. The one surprise of the day was John Jancek, who had two beautiful catches down the field. He finished the day with 2 receptions for 137 yards and 1 touchdown. It will be interesting to see how this offense stretches the field, especially with the speed they possess.

    Velus Jones Jr. was ecstatic about this offense and thankful for the offensive change in his final year.

    “Man, it was exciting. I know y’all were excited to watch it. It’s unbelievable. My teammates and I are so blessed to have this coaching staff and be able to bring that energy in this high scoring-power offense. It’s a dream come true. It feels unreal, to be honest. We’re just out there having fun and flying around.”

    In all honesty, the secondary should lead the Vols defense this season. It will be a struggle for the defensive line to get pressure on the quarterback, so having a reliable group in the backfield will become a huge benefit. On Saturday, you had your normal contributions from Jaylen McCollough, Alontae Taylor, Trevon Flowers, Warren Burrell, Doneiko slaughter and Theo Jackson. The development of Christian Charles and Kenneth George will only help this group moving forward. Yes, there were times the group looked confused on Saturday, but they were also running a very basic defensive scheme, so don’t overreact to a few busted coverages.

    As the coaches look for their leader behind center, they won’t have to search far for talent at running back. As spring practice began, the search was on for who could step up and fill the shoes of Eric Gray and Ty Chandler. Over the course of fifteen practices, the Vols have found themselves a group of guys who could carry them in 2021.

    On Saturday, the group rushed for a combined 248 yards, led by Jabari Small, who had 45 yards on 11 carries, with 2 touchdowns. Also, Fred Orr, Jaylen Wright, Marcus Pierce and Dee Beckwith had a combined 23 attempts. The one player who the coaching staff will need in August is Tiyon Evans, who was barely used today, though he did have one touchdown. There was no need to risk re-aggravating an ankle injury that kept him out most of the spring.

    Jabari Small is enjoying the running back competition, which he says will bring out the best in each player, especially with a loaded room.

    “It’s very healthy. We all push each other. We all support each other too. I feel like it’s a healthy competition, you know what I mean? We all have fun. We go out there and compete and hold each other to a standard, and that’s just going to make the whole room better.”

    Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

    Tennessee coaches also understand they will need more out of this defensive line unit, as they only had around six healthy players. The Vols lack the “Monster”, the guy they know they can count on to get the big stop on third down. These are spots the coaching staff must get fixed. I really like the play of Byron Young, who didn’t play on Saturday. Can the Vols get more out of Bryson Eason and Tyler Baron? They are counting on it, along with Kurot Garland and Elijah Simmons. But as summer work begins, it wouldn’t surprise me to see some attrition at the position, with a few guys potentially moving on. The fact is, if Tennessee cannot produce pressure from the front seven, then it will be a long season for this Tim Banks defense.

    Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

    So, here we are. Tennessee has room for improvement at multiple positions, especially linebacker, where they’ll get a few guys back, while also looking for help in the portal. It’s not a secret that the Vols need depth and playmakers, so the coaches must formulate a plan on how to use the remaining open spots they have.

    As spring practice ends, the work just begins. Luckily, Tennessee made it through without any significant injuries and have found some guys that should contribute once fall camp kicks off. The key thing now is taking these first 15 practices under Josh Heupel and building upon it over the next four months.

    One thing is for sure, Tennessee is in a different stratosphere when it comes to offense. Now, they need to somehow get the defense on the same trajectory.

    Images courtesy of Tennessee Athletic communications 

    Trey Wallace
    Trey Wallace is a Knoxville-based journalist who has been covering University of Tennessee athletics since early 2018. His passion for sports is evident in his work and has led him to break some of college football's biggest stories. His vast social media reach and natural podcast proficiency continue to make Wallace one of Vol Nation's most trusted sources. Wallace was born and raised in Mobile, AL and graduated from the University of South Alabama. He loves the mountains as much as the beach and looks forward to living in East Tennessee for many years to come.