It’s decision time on Rocky Top. The Derek Dooley era saw the Vols become sheep, but now that Butch Jones has built this roster and program back up again the decision is theirs to make. Are they gonna be sheep or wolves? That decision will make all the difference between another .500 season and a legitimate run at a division title.
If Nick Chubb was the player of last season’s second half, then Josh Dobbs wasn’t far behind. Starting the season as the backup, Dobbs came in halfway through the Alabama game and never looked back. The Vols went 4-1 over their last five with him at the helm. He completed 63.3% of his passes for just over 1,200 yards, nine touchdowns and six picks, and also chipped in 551 non-sack rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. For the first time in several seasons, Tennessee has a quarterback that defenses have to fear.
He will also have plenty of weapons to work with in the passing game, considering that Tennessee’s top nine pass catchers from a season ago return, including running back Jalen Hurd. Pig Howard and Marquez North have been the big guys for a few years now, and both of them will look to put together marquee seasons. They will be aided by sophomore Josh Malone, a former five-star recruit, and Von Pearson who will look to put a rocky offseason behind him after being charged with rape. Those charges were later dropped. Ethan Wolf, not a sheep, will also be a solid option at tight end.
The aforementioned Hurd rushed for just south of 900 yards and five touchdowns as a true freshman last season. He returns and looks to build on that campaign going forward. A pair of transfers should also make an impact out of the backfield in Ralph Abernathy IV and Alvin Kamara. Abernathy, a former Cincinnati player, rushed for 511 yards and five touchdowns in his last season as a Bearcat. Kamara started his career in Tuscaloosa before transferring to a community college last season, and now he brings his talents to Knoxville where he has done nothing but impress the coaches so far.
Only one thing seems to be standing in the way of this talented set of skill players and a huge season: their own blockers. Tennessee’s offensive line allowed 43 sacks last season, which was good for most in the conference. However, the Vols were set to return four starters before left guard Marcus Jackson went down with an arm injury. He will miss roughly the first six weeks of the regular season.
Tennessee doesn’t have the same issues on the defensive side of the ball. Sophomore Derek Barnett returns after recording 20.5 tackles for loss and ten sacks last season. Curt Maggitt is another prime pass rusher who plays a hybrid linebacker/end position, and bested Barnett by one in the sack department last season. Danny O’Brien and true freshman Shy Tuttle will be charged with plugging the middle of the defense.
The linebacker position got a bit thinner with A.J. Johnson’s dismissal from the team, but with the Vols’ nickel base alignment, this is probably the easiest deficiency to survive. Last season’s leading tackler Jalen Reeves-Maybin is back and he will be joined at linebacker by Kenny Bynum if the current depth chart holds. Sophomore Cortez McDowell and redshirt freshman Dillon Bates are two guys to watch as potential breakout candidates.
Both safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarell McNeill return after posting identical two interception, three pass break-up, one forced fumble stat lines last season. They also had a combined for 137.5 tackles. Cameron Sutton just might be the best player on the defense at corner. He tallied three interceptions and thirteen pass break-ups alone last season. He will be joined by sophomore Emmanual Mosely and another player to be named at nickelback. Rashaan Gaulden was expected to start in the secondary before breaking his foot in practice. He will miss the rest of the season.
I’m buying Tennessee as an immensely improved team with Dobbs as a starting quarterback. However, I will not go so far as to pick them to win the division or conference, nor do I have them beating Oklahoma in their big non-conference game. The other three losses in my estimation will be Georgia, Missouri and Alabama. The Vols have the potential to beat anybody though, so none of these teams can “rest on their laurels” when they gear up to play Tennessee, especially Oklahoma and Georgia who go to Rocky Top.