Good evening (or morning, afternoon, whenever you’re reading this)! Welcome to the inaugural edition of the FOX Sports Knoxville Tennessee Football Midseason Awards Ceremony Where Some Writer Gives Nonexistent Trophies To Vol Football Players Who Have Done Well On A Team We Thought Was Really Bad But Might Be Okay After All™
Ladies and gentlemen, I am so glad that you can be here in attendance and I see that you’re all dressed in your finest attire. Even Jeremy Pruitt and Bob Kesling had to look dapper for this occasion:
Jeremy Pruitt is in rare form on his coaches show today. Sipping on the world’s largest Coca Cola container, he enters an alternate state as Bob cranks up the highlights. pic.twitter.com/3QKIJ77QaO
— Russell Smith (@Russell___Smith) October 14, 2018
I hope you all helped yourselves to my hand-picked hors d’oeuvres prior to the show that I swear weren’t just a multitude of near-expired party platters I picked up from the Kroger deli sale display at 1:30 a.m.
Anyway, your Tennessee Volunteers sit at 3-3 (1-2 SEC) at the midway point of their season and my, my has our mood done a 180 in a few short weeks. After the debacle that was the Florida game, it was a near consensus that the Vols were going to go 3-9 and at best 4-8 in Pruitt’s first season. But on Saturday, Tennessee looked night-and-day from the team it was just under a month ago in a 30-24 road upset over No. 21 Auburn, causing the Tiger faithful to go DEFCON 1 on message boards.
While the Plains burn, it is a happy time in Knoxville for a few days (no, no, no we aren’t discussing THAT game, be glad and enjoy the present!). While there most likely won’t be any Vols going to New York for the annual CFB Awards Show in December, I will give them one right now for the first half of the season that isn’t nearly as dull.
*For comparison’s sake, we’ll use the annual awards given to the best of college football, tailored to specific Vols*
Jim Thorpe Award (best defensive back) – Bryce Thompson
Good news: Bryce Thompson is a pretty good football player
Better news: He is improving with each game.
Best news: He is a true freshman.
— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) October 13, 2018
This makes me very happy.
Thompson leads the team in interceptions (two) and passes defended (three). It should be exciting to watch him develop alongside fellow true freshman defensive back standout Alontae Taylor over the next few seasons. In the meantime, enjoy his pettiness on Twitter.
Yea….ok lol https://t.co/rTCFscNkh9
— Bryce Thompson (@thommybry) October 13, 2018
Doak Walker Award (best running back) – Ty Chandler
Tennessee’s offense features a stable of ball-carriers to choose from, but one has separated himself with his play thus far: sophomore Ty Chandler.
The Nashville native has been the every-down back for the Vols, accumulating 412 yards of total offense and three touchdowns in just four full games of action.
While Tim Jordan has proved to be a reliable option, rushing for 284 yards (second on the team), it is Chandler’s Swiss Army Knife capability that gets him the nod here.
Butkus Award (best linebacker) – Darrell Taylor
When Pruitt was hired, we knew that a new 3-4 defensive scheme was coming. With that came position changes along the front-seven. For Taylor, this has paid huge dividends, which earns him our award for best linebacker.
The redshirt junior and Mr. WGWTFA is on pace for a career year with 16 total tackles and three sacks, good for first on the team in that department. The three sacks already matches his total from last season.
While this may be a slightly controversial choice over tackle-leader Daniel Bituli (31), it has been Taylor’s ability to take advantage of his move to OLB.
Biletnikoff Award (best wide receiver) – Marquez Callaway/Jauan Jennings
Yes, season awards can’t have co-winners in real life, but dammit, this is my article and no one can tell me what to do, bwahahaha!
Anyway, it was really hard to choose one of these talented playmakers over the other, so they both get the nod for top receiver.
On paper, Callaway is the No. 1 receiver, leading the Vols in receptions (19) and receiving yards (308). However, it is also clear to everyone what Jennings has meant to this team for years and his redemption story is one that the fanbase has rallied behind.
The guy who clinched it and the guy who gave him a second chance. pic.twitter.com/ag4P99z8Fu
— David Cobb (@DavidWCobb) October 13, 2018
Plus, I have stats to back me up, too. He is second on the team with 17 catches for 207 yards and is tied for the team lead with two touchdown receptions.
Now, enjoy watching him destroy poor Deshaun Davis
Watch him block this linebacker pic.twitter.com/mtnNqWqMos
— Rhett Fordham (@RhettFordham44) October 13, 2018
Outland Trophy (best Interior Lineman) – Alexis Johnson, Jr.
Johnson probably deserves the most improved player award, as well.
It’s been a steady rise for this former JUCO product who has faced his share of health/off-field troubles since he arrived on Rocky Top in 2016. Now, Johnson has experienced a productive first half in which he is second on the team in tackles with 28 and is second in tackles for loss with 3.5.
Johnson’s play has been a welcomed sight and here’s hoping that it will only improve through the back half of the season.
Lou Groza and Ray Guy Awards (Best Kicker and Punter) – Brent Cimaglia and Joe Doyle
Let’s hear it one time for #PunterU and our kicking game! We respect special teams here, and don’t ever forget General Neyland’s sixth Game Maxim: “Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made.”
The sophomore Cimaglia has done well when called upon, making 7-of-8 field goals — the only miss being the one blocked by Auburn — with a long of 45 yards and being perfect on extra points.
Likewise, redshirt freshman Joe Doyle (rules!) has been stout. The Farragut product has averaged a solid 42.2 yards per punt, including flipping the field with punts of 71 and 64 yards against Georgia and Auburn, respectively.
Chuck Bednarik Award (Best Defensive Player) – Daniel Bituli
The in-state product made his name known to everyone last year by recording 23 tackles in the 2017 season-opening win over Georgia Tech. This was the start to a season in which he led the team in tackles with 90.
Six games into 2018 and Bituli is well on his way to becoming the top tackler once again. The linebacker has racked up 31 total tackles including 2.5 TFLs and a sack.
He has yet to become elite, but he is consistent and fits perfectly into this Pruitt/Kevin Sherrer defense.
Heisman Trophy – Jarrett Guarantano
Expecting someone else?
Yes, I will admit that this is a product of recency bias and is 80 percent based on what he did against Auburn, but THAT’S OKAY.
Guarantano’s 21-of-32, 328 yard, two touchdown performance proved something. No, it’s not that he has turned a corner into finally becoming the near-five star prospect we all dreamed would lead us to the Promised Land. It’s not that he is now one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC. And it isn’t that we should expect him to replicate this against all the remaining beatable opponents.
It proved that this team needs him.
For now at least, the criticism, bashing and hate has been silenced. This was the breakout game that we had been waiting for, and it coming in the game it did sweetened the deal. If we can keep seeing week-to-week improvement and have him do half of what he did to Auburn the rest of the way, the Vols will be in good shape.
Outside of the abysmal Florida game, Guarantano has been serviceable to an offense that has been hindered by porous offensive line play most of the season. Through six games, he has thrown for six touchdowns, two interceptions and 1,129 yards while completing 64 percent of his passes (fifth among SEC starting QBs).
He’s tough, he’s a leader and he will hopefully to get even better on the field. Tennessee may still not have a real Heisman winner, but JG gets mine and that matters a hell of a lot more, in my opinion.