The 2020 football season didn’t go as planned for the University of Tennessee. After a promising six-game win streak to close out 2019, the Vols went 3-7 en route to head coach Jeremy Pruitt being fired for cause.
Since then, things have continued to spiral. Players have entered the transfer portal at an alarming rate, and even newcomers such as Dylan Brooks, Cody Brown and J’Marion Gooch decided to get call it a day before the day even got started.
Now it’s Josh Heupel’s turn to see what he can do in Knoxville.
OutKick has been going through and breaking down the offseason outlooks for all 14 SEC teams. So, let’s have a closer look at Tennessee to see what fans can expect from the Vols during Heupel’s debut season as an SEC head coach.
For other offseason outlooks from around the SEC, click here.
Key Losses: QB Jarrett Guarantano; RB Eric Gray; RB Ty Chandler; WR Josh Palmer; OL Trey Smith; OL Wanya Morris; OL Jahmir Johnson; LB Henry To’o To’o; EDGE Quavaris Crouch; EDGE Kivon Bennett; CB Bryce Thompson; DB Shawn Shamburger; S Key Lawrence; K Brent Cimaglia
Key Returning: QB Harrison Bailey; WR Jalin Hyatt; WR Velus Jones Jr.; OL Cade Mays; OL Darnell Wright, OL Cooper Mays, DL Aubrey Solomon; DL Darel Middleton; DL LaTrell Bumphus, EDGE Tyler Baron; S Jaylen McCollough; DB Theo Jackson; CB Alontae Taylor; CB Warren Burrell; DB/WR Deangelo Gibbs; P Paxton Brooks
Key Additions: LB Aaron Willis (4-star); ATH Kaemen Marley (4); DT-QB Kaidon Salter (4); Tiyon Evans (4); DT KaTron Evans (4); WR Julian Nixon; WR Walker Merrill (4); WDE Byron Young (3); QB Hendon Hooker (TP, VT); K Chase McGrath (TP, USC)
Key Games: vs. Pitt (Sept. 11); at Florida (Sept. 25); at Missouri (Oct. 2); vs. Ole Miss (Oct. 16); at Alabama (Oct. 23); at Kentucky (Nov. 6); vs. Georgia (Nov. 13)
Outlook: Where do you even begin with Tennessee? As much as I like some of the returning players, it has been rough watching that amount of talent walk out the door — and not to the NFL draft. The portal has been brutal.
The first thing people will mention about the Vols is the quarterback spot. Jarrett Guaratano, for the most part, was a dumpster fire littered with inconsistency. Now, the program either turns to second-year signal caller Harrison Bailey or transfer Hendon Hooker. Two very different styles, but both have promise — especially in Heupel’s offense.
It would’ve been fun to see Eric Gray and Wanya Morris add to this offense, though there are potentially six offensive linemen (depending on Riley Locklear) with experience returning, including four or five who have seen extensive playing time.
- Cady Mays – 478 snaps in 2020, 25 starts
- Darnell Wright – 569 snaps in 2020, 16 starts
- Jerome Carvin – 273 snaps in 2020, 16 starts
- K’Rojhn Calbert – played in 32 career games, 5 starts
- Cooper Mays – 170 snaps in 2020, 2 starts
- Riley Locklear – played in 23 games, 4 starts
That experience helps, but the loss of Trey Smith, Brandon Kennedy, Morris and Jahmir Johnson still hit the depth pretty hard. At least there is also experience returning at wide receiver, where the only significant losses are Josh Palmer and Brandon Johnson.
The most notable concern with any Heupel team comes on the defensive side of the ball, however. At UCF, his offenses put strain on his defenses, and the results were worrisome.
In fact, the defense continuously got worse during his time in Orlando.
Unnecessary losses such as Henry To’o To’o, Quavaris Crouch, Kivon Bennett, Key Lawrence and Shawn Shamburger make this situation look even worse. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of several players along the defensive front and in the secondary. There was just an opportunity for this defense to look even more formidable when including those other guys.
The likely departure of To’o To’o does create an opportunity for four-star freshman Aaron Willis, who is now the program’s top recruit for 2021, to assume an early role as an off-ball linebacker.
At this point, fans have to be hoping for a 6-6 regular season and a bowl berth. As long as they can win the games they’re supposed to (Bowling Green, Tennessee Tech and South Alabama) and get past Pitt, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, that is certainly within reach.
If they can do all that and steal one from a Kentucky, Ole Miss, Missouri or even Florida, then you’re looking at 7-5. That would be a home run for Heupel’s first season, in my opinion. It’s going to take some time to right this ship.
Follow Clint Lamb on Twitter @ClintRLamb.