Tennessee Volunteers: 2021 Offensive Preview
The excitement and anxiousness are busting at the seams amongst the great people of Big Orange Country and Vol Nation. Big Orange Fridays, “It’s Football Time in Tennessee”, and Rocky Top blaring all around town, are just around the corner. The Volunteers are coming off the 2020 season in which they went 3-7 in an All-SEC schedule due to Covid-19. New head coach Josh Heupel, formerly at UCF, is looking to right the many wrongs of the prior coaching staff.
The amount of talent Tennessee lost to the transfer portal is the center of attention nationally. But the fact is, there are plenty of highly-rated players on the 2021 roster. That being said, Coach Heupel and Athletic Director, Danny White, are looking to do what the previous three regimes could not: Revive Tennessee Football.
WHO’S GOING TO BE THE GUY?
One thing that has been a consensus opinion is that Heupel will instill a high-octane and competent offense. While the Vols lost some notable playmakers to the transfer portal, the new regime was able to add, and returned, several players that will have the Pride of the Southland Band striking up Rocky Top this fall. Two new signal-callers joining the Tennessee roster, Hendon Hooker (Virginia Tech) and Joe Milton (Michigan) have both impressed quarterback coach Joey Halzle. The Vols return Harrison Bailey while Brian Maurer announced late Tuesday evening via Instagram that he plans to enter the transfer portal. And then there were three.
Hooker not only threw for nearly 3,000 yards with the Hokies, but he also added over 1,000 yards on the ground. Virginia Tech head coach has a similar offensive scheme in Blacksburg, therefore one might think that gives Hooker the upper hand. The former Hokie is far and away the most mobile quarterback on the roster, therefore it wouldn’t be surprising to see packages designed for Hooker any given Saturday.
Milton is the only quarterback on the roster to come in after spring practice. Which is an indication to some that Heupel wasn’t satisfied with what he was seeing out of his quarterbacks. Milton was highly recruited out of high school, including an offer from Heupel at UCF, and started off hot last season at Michigan before suffering a thumb injury. Two words you’ll hear often when speaking of Milton, STRONG ARM.
Harrison Bailey was the early favorite to earn the starting spot over Hooker and Milton. But that doesn’t seem to be the case now, just a few weeks away from the season opener. Bailey is no stranger to competition. He faced off against former Vols, Jarrett Guarantano and JT Shrout, throughout the 2020 season. Bailey has the make-up of a starting SEC Quarterback, but I believe the Vols are looking for more of a threat as a runner in addition to a strong arm. That being said, I would not count Bailey out.
I feel confident saying that Tennessee has a good problem at the helm of the offense, after adding Milton and Hooker. Coach Heupel himself is a former Heisman-Finalist Quarterback. It’s still early in fall-camp and the QB battle is wide open. I believe Heupel will give the nod to the guy who gives Tennessee the best chance to win, week in and week out. I expect to see all three quarterbacks vs. Bowling Green in the home opener.
RUNNING BACKS, WIDE RECEIVERS, AND OFFENSIVE LINE
The wide receiver position will look to improve in a friendlier scheme under Heupel as well. The Vols bring back standouts Velus Jones Jr. and Jalin Hyatt. Cedric Tillman and Ramel Keyton return, in addition to Javonta Payton who joins the Volunteers receiver room after transferring from Mississippi State this spring. One word to describe this receiver group? FAST.
There are some exciting names to be found at the running back position as well. Jabari Small made his presence felt in 2020 though seeing limited snaps behind Ty Chandler and Eric Gray who have both since transferred. Junior college-transfer Tiyon Evans is a name to remember as he will get his fair share of snaps in the backfield. Evans comes in as the top-ranked JUCO running back and if his potential carries over to the SEC, the running back group could quickly become a strength for the Tennessee offense.
After an underwhelming season last year, the offensive line is looking to bounce back in a big way. Cade Mays returns and appears to be the anchor of this group. Offensive Line coach Glen Elarbee noted that Cade is always looking to help and compete at guard and tackle. Dayne Davis is making a splash in fall-camp at Left Tackle, just as he did in the spring. K’Rojhn Calbert is likely out for the year due to a severe bicep injury and has since undergone surgery. Some experienced players return to the offensive line this season. The Volunteers return Jerome Carvin, Riley Locklear, Cooper Mays, and 5-star Darnell Wright who are ready to take a step forward in Heupel’s revamped offense.
The SEC is once again the deepest league in the country. It may not always look pretty, but I believe Heupel will make a drastic impact in improving this offense. Which is something Tennessee fans haven’t seen in quite some time. Under the new staff, the Vols could and should be more competitive than they were in 2020. Tennessee will score points, and lots of them. One comparison some Tennessee fans may enjoy is Lane Kiffin’s first season at Ole Miss. Will a high-scoring offense lead to many wins? That question could be answered on the other side of the ball.