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Offseason Additions Give Tennessee Football an Edge on the Gridiron

Tennessee Football
Tennessee WR Dont’e Thornton. Photo by Rocky Top Insider/Ric Butler.

Hendon Hooker has played his last snap in a Tennessee uniform. So has Jalin Hyatt. The same is true with Byron Young, Darnell Wright, Jerome Carvin, Cedric Tillman, Jeremy Banks, Trevon Flowers, and several more Tennessee players following the end of last season.

But while Tennessee does have turnaround to take care of, as does every team, the Vols did a solid job of reloading that talent and addressing areas of need this offseason. Was it perfect? No, it rarely is. Was it more than every other team in the sport? No, probably not. But did Tennessee bring in guys that can contribute this season? Certainly.

In addition to the 25 signees that Tennessee brought in with the class of 2023, the Vols also grabbed eight players from the transfer portal. That includes wide receiver Dont’e Thornton, linebacker Keenan Pili, defensive lineman Omarr Norman-Lott, and defensive back Gabe Jeudy-Lally. Tennessee also brought in offensive tackle John Campbell Jr., offensive tackle Andrej Karic, tight end McCallan Castles, and kicker Charles Campbell.

ESPN’s Craig Haubert has Tennessee ranked at No. 16 in terms of which teams could have the most impact by their offseason additions from both the recruiting cycle and the transfer portal. Haubert also lists Tennessee’s top impact newcomers as Pili, Campbell, Norman-Lott, Thornton, and linebacker Arion Carter, 247’s No. 127 national player from the class of 2023.

“Pili looks to lead the impact additions, as he was a two-time captain at BYU and among the Cougars’ leading tacklers when healthy,” Haubert wrote. “[John] Campbell arrives from Miami with starting experience and is a strong candidate to fill a hole on an O-line that lost two key members in first-round draft pick Darnell Wright and Jerome Carvin.”

With the departures on the field from last season, some of those transfers could wind up as viable replacements in the starting lineup. Starting with the obvious, redshirt-senior Charles Campbell looks like he could be primed to take over the starting kicking role from Chase McGrath in 2022.

Haubert started with Keenan Pili in his summary for good reason. The experienced former BYU player was raved about during the spring practices that Tennessee had earlier in the year. Word around the program was that Pili was experienced, mature, smart, and had a great motor.

Considering that Tennessee is losing two major receivers from the 2022 roster, former Oregon receiver Dont’e Thornton could very well be a big piece to Josh Heupel’s offense this season. The 6-foot-5 receiver is using the early months of his time in Knoxville to learn the system so that he can be fully ready to go when fall camp rolls around. Tennessee does return a trio of starting-caliber receivers in Ramel Keyton, Squirrel White, and Bru McCoy, but Thornton will factor into the rotation to some degree.

“He’s long,” head coach Josh Heupel said about Thornton early into the spring schedule. “He’s got great speed, he’s got experience, he’s mature. He’s got great work habits as a guy that’s constantly up here in the meeting room. But also doing things in the indoor [facility] and trying to become the best he can.”

Jeudy-Lally and John Campbell could also be in line to take a starting position this season, too. While it’s still too early to have a good sense of what Tennessee will do, the Vols at least have options.

More from RTI: Tennessee Stockpiling Young and Exciting Secondary Talent During Spring Camp

There’s a prominent name that hasn’t been said yet, though, with top 2023 prospect Nico Iamaleava.

Haubert also gave Tennessee credit for the addition of the five-star quarterback. While Iamaleava wasn’t too factored into the rankings considering the Vols are set at quarterback with Joe Milton III in 2023, Haubert still specifically mentioned the California native in his summary as the likely second-string quarterback in case of emergency.

Joe Milton III will likely be QB1, but highly touted signee Nicholaus Iamaleava could be viewed as QB1a,” Haubert continued on to write. “QB depth is limited on the Vols’ roster, so the ESPN 300 top-five QB prospect could play a role this season; if he doesn’t, he already has shown signs of being their QB of the future.”

Tennessee Isn’t The Only One Reloading…

Tennessee comes in as the sixth-highest-ranked team from the SEC in terms of Haubert’s newcomer impact rankings. There are also three SEC teams behind Tennessee in the rankings.

LSU lands at No. 4 while Auburn is at No. 8 in the rankings. Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss Rebels, meanwhile, come in at No. 11 while the Arkansas Razorbacks and Kentucky Wildcats go back-to-back at No. 13 and No. 14, respectively.

Florida is one spot behind Tennessee at No. 17 while Georgia and Alabama close out the SEC’s teams at No. 22 and No. 23, respectively.

All nine of the SEC programs in the rankings finished the 2023 recruiting cycle with a class ranked in the Top 35 nationally, as well. Those rankings come from 247’s services.

Check out Craig Haubert’s full list for ESPN here.

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