Tennessee is just four days away from opening its 2022 season against Ball State at Neyland Stadium. With the season right around the corner, we take a look at the five players who will most affect the Vols’ success this season.
Keep in mind, this is not necessarily the five best or most important players on Tennessee’s 2022 team. Preseason All-SEC selection Cedric Tillman would be high on a list like that but is absent on this list because we know what Tillman is capable of and what to expect from him.
This list is a blend of star players like Tillman who we’ve seen impress, but have another level they could reach and players who haven’t played a major role in the past but will this season.
With that introduction, it’s on to the list.
5. Linebacker Juwan Mitchell
Juwan Mitchell was expected to be one of, if not, Tennessee’s best linebackers a season ago after transferring from Texas. Instead, Mitchell made just eight tackles in the first four games of the season before an injury ended Mitchell’s season.
There was little buzz around Mitchell entering fall camp due to his disappointing first month last season, but the 6-foot-1 senior linebacker had a healthy and consistent fall camp to become a sure fire factor this season.
Aaron Beasley might earn the start beside Jeremy Banks Thursday night, but Mitchell is going to play a lot and the Vols are expecting a big season.
If Mitchell plays like he did in 2020 — when he led the Longhorns with 62 tackles — then he’ll provide a massive boost to Tennessee’s defense and a razor thin linebacker unit.
4. Running Back Jabari Small
Small’s spot on this list has as much to do with Tennessee’s lack of running back depth as it does with anything else. Tennessee has just four healthy scholarship running backs entering the season and needs Small to be on the field more this season.
The Memphis native added 15 pounds this offseason to do just that after a nagging shoulder injury made it difficult for Small to finish games in his sophomore season.
Despite the limitations, Small was good in 2021. Tennessee’s running backs coach Jerry Mack mentioned earlier this preseason that Small would have rushed for 1,000 yards last year if he stayed healthy and that he believes he can do it this season.
There’s been an abundance of buzz around Small’s fall practice as the junior is healthy and looking to take the next step this season. If he improves upon his 792 yard, nine touchdown sophomore season than Tennessee’s rushing attack and offense could be extremely lethal.
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3. Defensive End/Outside Linebacker Byron Young
No one on Tennessee’s roster better sums up the statement “this list is a blend of star players like Tillman who we’ve seen impress, but have another level they could reach” than Byron Young.
Young is a Preseason First Team All-SEC selection after flashing abundant potential in his junior season after transferring form junior college. Young missed the first two games of the season with eligibility concerns before posting a team-high 5.5 sacks.
The South Carolina native got better-and-better as the season went on and looks more than capable of developing into one of the SEC’s best pass rushers.
Tennessee needs him to do just that this season. The Vols struggled to get to the passer blitzing four a season ago. However, there’s real reason to believe Tennessee’s front will be significantly better rushing the passer. There’s no bigger reason than Young’s potential to play his way into a first round NFL Draft selection.
With a ton of questions around Tennessee’s secondary, a greatly improved pass rush would do wanders for its defense this fall.
2. Left Tackle(s) Jeremiah Crawford/Gerald Mincey
I’m cheating a bit.
Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said the Vols’ left tackle battle will continue into the season with Jeremiah Crawford and Florida transfer Gerald Mincey both set to play significant reps in the season opener.
Whoever ends up winning the starting job is extremely important to Tennessee’s season, protecting Hendon Hooker’s blindside on an offensive line that returns four starters from a season ago.
When offensive tackle Cade Mays was sidelined with an injury last season, Tennessee’s back up linemen — including Crawford — struggled in his place.
Tennessee coaches have expressed optimism about Crawford’s development and the status of the left tackle spot. However, it is the biggest question mark on a Volunteer offense that returns an abundance of key players.
1. Quarterback Hendon Hooker
The number one key returning starter on Tennessee’s offense is quarterback Hendon Hooker. Hooker rejuvenated Tennessee’s offense after taking over in the second quarter against Pittsburgh last season.
After throwing for 2,945 yards and 31 touchdowns in incredibly efficient fashion, there’s still more out there for the super senior quarterback. Hooker and Heupel both talked this offseason about how much better the signal caller can get.
More than anything, quarterback is by far the most important position on the field and whoever is taking snaps behind center is going to have a tremendous impact on the success of the season.