Early look at UT’s of­fense for 2019

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - SPORTS - BY GENE HEN­LEY STAFF WRITER

KNOXVILLE — Spir­its are high around the Ten­nessee foot­ball pro­gram this off­sea­son, which has in­cluded sign­ing a re­cruit­ing class ranked 12th in the na­tion and adding as­sis­tants with suc­cess­ful track records.

With that kind of mo­men­tum, it’s al­most as though most for­get the Vol­un­teers went 5-7 in 2018, with an av­er­age mar­gin of de­feat of 25.1 points and six losses by 25 or more points in coach Jeremy Pruitt’s first sea­son. Also ap­par­ently over­looked for now is that the pro­gram is 55-57 this decade, with the Vols likely to be the only South­east­ern Con­fer­ence team to not win at least 10 games in a sin­gle sea­son be­fore it’s over.

The op­ti­mism is un­der­stand­able be­cause ev­ery­thing ap­pears to be trend­ing in the right di­rec­tion for the Vols un­der Pruitt.

He has brought in qual­ity play­ers. He pried a suc­cess­ful of­fen­sive cood­i­na­tor (Jim Chaney) from ri­val Ge­or­gia, and he also con­vinced for­mer Vols quar­ter­back Tee Mar­tin to come back as an of­fen­sive po­si­tion coach. Go­ing into next sea­son, he re­turns a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence and he has been build­ing the sort of depth a team needs to com­pete in the tal­ent-rich South­east­ern Con­fer­ence.

In the first of a two-part series tak­ing a po­si­tion-by-po­si­tion look at Ten­nessee’s prospec­tive 2019 ros­ter, the Times Free Press takes a look at the of­fense.

QUAR­TER­BACK

All eyes will be on the de­vel­op­ment of Jar­rett Guar­an­tano. Sta­tis­tics sug­gest the 6-foot-4, 207-pounder made im­pres­sive strides in his first sea­son as a starter by throw­ing for 1,907 yards and 12 touch­downs with only three in­ter­cep­tions. At one point, he had thrown a school-record 166 con­sec­u­tive passes with­out an in­ter­cep­tion. There were times he held on to the ball and oth­ers in which he chose to check down and not take any chances, but with the ex­its of one-year rental Keller Chryst, who was a grad­u­ate trans­fer, and Will McBride, who has trans­ferred to La­mar, it ap­pears un­likely Guar­an­tano will en­ter spring camp with a se­ri­ous chal­lenger for the start­ing job. Red­shirt fresh­men J.T. Shrout and in­com­ing fresh­man Brian Mau­rer, who is al­ready on cam­pus, are more likely to battle for the backup job.

RUN­NING BACK

Com­ing off a sea­son in which he led the Vols in rush­ing yards (630) and touch­down runs (four), Ty Chan­dler is back for his ju­nior sea­son. In­juries lim­ited him in 2018, when he played in all but one game but didn’t al­ways look healthy. Tim Jor­dan added 566 yards on the ground and showed an abil­ity to han­dle a lion’s share of the work­load when he rushed for 118 yards on 20 car­ries af­ter Chan­dler was in­jured against West Vir­ginia. The ques­tions loom be­hind those two. Jeremy Banks could fac­tor in, but it’s equally likely the 6-1, 211-pound sopho­more moves to linebacker; Pruitt hasn’t con­firmed on which side of the ball he’ll end up. Carlin Fils-aime could have a role, but he strug­gled last sea­son and lost a key fum­ble in the loss to Mis­souri. In­com­ing fresh­man Eric Gray, the first three-time Ten­nessee Mr. Foot­ball Award win­ner, rushed for 7,901 yards and 123 touch­downs in his fi­nal three high school sea­sons at Lau­sanne. He was an early en­rollee who could get on the play­ing field early, too.

WIDE RE­CEIVERS

This group re­ceived a boost when Jauan Jen­nings, who flirted with en­ter­ing the NFL draft, de­cided to re­turn for his se­nior cam­paign. He gives the re­ceivers a tough, phys­i­cal pres­ence with 87 ca­reer catches and 10 touch­downs. He’s one of three re­turn­ing starters at his po­si­tion, with Mar­quez Call­away (37 catches, 592 yards, two touch­downs in 2018) and ju­nior big-play threat Josh Palmer (23, 484, two) the oth­ers. Tyler Byrd has had a few mo­ments, while ju­nior Bran­don John­son has nine ca­reer starts and was the Vols’ lead­ing re­ceiver in 2017. Pruitt wanted more speed and depth at the po­si­tion, and did just that by adding Ramel Keyton (6-3, 185) and the speedy Jer­rod Means (6-2, 212).

TIGHT ENDS

Although Pruitt prefers big, phys­i­cal block­ers at the po­si­tion, his best player cur­rently at tight end, se­nior Dominick Wood-An­der­son, is a solid re­ceiver with 17 catches and a pair of touch­downs in his first sea­son with the pro­gram. Eli Wolf, who was the team’s sec­ond-most ex­pe­ri­enced tight end, grad­u­ated and has an­nounced his trans­fer to Ge­or­gia, leav­ing ju­nior Austin Pope as the only tight end in the pro­gram with a catch as a col­lege player. The Vols brought in a pair of tight ends dur­ing the re­cruit­ing cy­cles in Sean Brown and Jack­son Lowe, with each 6-5 and at least 240 pounds.

OF­FEN­SIVE LINE

Although the Vols re­turn at least four of­fen­sive line­man who started last sea­son, the buzz is around the play­ers com­ing in, led by Wanya Mor­ris and Dar­nell Wright, a pair of five-star re­cruits. Mor­ris joins Chris Ak­poroghene as early en­rollees among the of­fen­sive line signees. Jack­son Lam­p­ley and Melvin McBride also signed to give the Vols one of the top O-line classes in the coun­try and help sat­isfy Pruitt’s am­bi­tion for the line to get big­ger (each signees weighs at least 294 pounds). The unit strug­gled last sea­son and now loses three-year starter Drew Rich­mond, who is in the trans­fer por­tal, and Chance Hall, who re­cently had to take a med­i­cal re­tire­ment. The Vols are un­sure about the sta­tus of Trey Smith, who af­ter a Fresh­man All-Amer­ica sea­son is out in­def­i­nitely due to blood clots in his lungs. Back are Bran­don Kennedy, their start­ing cen­ter un­til a knee in­jury in prac­tice forced him to miss all but one game last year, and Jah­mir John­son, Ryan John­son, Nathan Niehaus and Mar­cus Ta­tum, who each started at least five games last sea­son. Re­turn­ing play­ers are be­ing asked to get big­ger; in­com­ing play­ers are be­ing asked to get stronger.

Con­tact Gene Hen­ley at ghen­[email protected]­freep­ress.com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @gene­hen­ley3 or at Face­book.com/ Vol­sUp­date.

STAFF FILE PHOTO BY C.B. SCHMELTER

Ten­nessee quar­ter­back Jar­rett Guar­an­tano (2) talks with run­ning back Ty Chan­dler be­tween plays dur­ing the Vols’ game at Ge­or­gia last Septem­ber. Guar­an­tano is likely to hold on to his start­ing spot this sum­mer.

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