What. A. Season.
Tennessee’s roller coaster 2019 season finished last Thursday with an exciting, eleventh hour comeback win against Indiana. The win put the exclamation point on a season that started miserably, got a little better, then ended with a six-game win streak.
Tennessee football is trending upward at the first time in what feels like forever. Next season, they’ll look to take the next step and close the gap between themselves and their key rivals Florida, Georgia, and Alabama after losing to them by a combined score of 112-30 in 2019.
But what all can they do to close that gap? Everything below would be a good place to start.
Keep The Coaching Staff Together As Best As Possible
All things considered, Jeremy Pruitt has assembled a very strong coaching staff for a program working it’s way out of the dark ages. And since they managed to salvage an eight win season after starting 1-4, there is bound to be some pilferage of the staff by other schools.
Just this week, former Tennessee running backs coach David Johnson accepted the same position at Florida State. Johnson was with new FSU head coach Mike Norvell for a couple of years at Memphis before coming to Tennessee. There are already a ton of rumors flying around about potential replacements. Jay Graham, Montario Hardesty, and Des Kitchings are external names that have been thrown around. Joe Osovet, Brian Niedermeyer, or Chris Weinke are all internal candidates that could also fill the void.
Elsewhere, according to state-run, Tee Martin turned down the offensive coordinator job at Ole Miss. A good sign that Tennessee is a desirable place to work, at this point in time.
It would be surprising if Johnson and Martin are the only coaches to get offers from other schools this coaching carousel.
Beyond recruiting implications, losing a position coach is normally not a program crippling ordeal. Pruitt has already shown he is capable of making good assistant hires. Johnson was obviously an important piece of this Tennessee coaching staff, but if he is the only member of the staff to leave this off-season, Tennessee should be just fine headed into the 2020 season.
Keeping the staff together would be huge for continuity’s sake, something Tennessee hasn’t had in a long, long time. If Jim Chaney and Derrick Ansley both decide to stay put, it will be the first time since 2014 Tennessee will return both coordinators from the year before.
There are only a handful of spots left in this 2020 recruiting class, but there are no off days on the recruiting trail. A strong close to the 2020 cycle would obviously keep the positive momentum going around the program.
Keeping the few committed but unsigned guys on board should obviously be a priority. But can they convince some uncommitted prospects to come to Knoxville? JUCO running back ZaQuandre White, Alabama athlete Damarcus Beckwith, and California defensive end Sayeed Shah are all currently uncommitted and strongly considering Tennessee.
It’s also hard to imagine this coaching staff giving up on trying to flip some prospects that got away. Auburn defensive end commit Jay Hardy, Georgia offensive tackle commit Broderick Jones, and Mizzou running back commit Elijah Young are just a few names that this Tennessee coaching staff will continue to pursue through National Signing Day in February.
Find Replacements For Key Departing Seniors
First things first, Brandon Kennedy gaining a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA is massive. Replacing a starting offensive lineman is always tough, but Pruitt and company won’t have to worry about that this off-season. At least at the center spot, they won’t.
That said, Jauan Jennings won’t be back next year. Breaking down how awesome he was could take forever, and it would just be preaching to the choir, anyway. Marquez Callaway, who often got lost amid all the Jennings hype, will be just as hard to replace. Can a sophomore Ramel Keyton and senior Josh Palmer fill those gaps in the offense next year? Both certainly showed flashes this season to suggest they can.
On defense, Daniel Bituli, Darrell Taylor, and Nigel Warrior are all departing. None of them will be easy to replace.
Bituli had kind of passed the defensive leadership torch to freshman Henry To’o To’o before the season was over, anyway. But finding someone to compliment the All-SEC frosh will be tough. JJ Peterson is a popular name among fans, but it’s anyone’s guess who will be the other linebacker in the middle of the defense come next season.
Taylor was a pass-rushing menace coming off the edge this season. He led the team in sacks with 8.5 and tackles for loss with 10. Next season, guys like Kivon Bennett, LaTrell Bumphus, and Deandre Johnson could all fill that void in the pass rush.
Warrior came into his own as the season went on, eventually becoming one of the most terrorizing all-around players on the defense. If names are the only thing being considered, incoming freshman Doneiko Slaughter will be a suitable replacement. Otherwise, Theo Jackson and Jaylen McCullough both saw a ton of playing time at safety this year.
Keep Improving On Defense
The second half of the season was a revelation for the Vols on defense. In the first six games, Tennessee’s defense surrendered 358.7 yards and 25.6 points per game.
In the last seven games of the season, including the bowl game, Tennessee’s defense surrendered 313.7 yards and 18.3 PPG. That’s a trend everyone LOVES to see.
Throw in the fact that Tennessee finished with the No. 17 pass defense in the country, and there is plenty of good things for this defensive unit to build off of. Maybe, just maybe, Tennessee can continue to improve on defense and become an elite group in the country next year.
Find A Quarterback
Here is the big one.
All due credit to Jarrett Guarantano. He has busted his butt and grinded through all sorts of adversity and criticism the past few months to be the starting quarterback. And, in his defense, he has shown at times that he can be an All-SEC caliber quarterback (see: Missouri).
But the high of his ceiling simply doesn’t justify the low of his floor. When he’s playing out of his mind, he is good, not great. When he is playing poorly, he can single-handedly lose the game on his own (see: Alabama). And when he plays poorly far more often than he plays well, it’s hard to continuously give him the benefit of the doubt.
That said, the quarterback room will be crowded this off-season. Brian Maurer and JT Shrout both return, and turbo-hyped recruit Harrison Bailey will be on campus in January as an early enrollee. Throw in Maryland transfer Kasim Hill, and Chaney and the rest of the offensive staff should have plenty of options to choose from. Don’t be surprised if at least one of the names above decides to transfer sometime this calendar year due to overcrowding.
Technically, it’s a possibility that, come next season, JG is still the best option in the room to win games. It would be the first season of his career here that he has the same offensive coordinator from the year before. But would he be able to retain the faith of the coaching staff, team, and fans at the first signs of trouble? Probably not.