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Tennessee football is retooling for 2017, but that might not be a bad thing

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Will slightly lower expectations mean happier fans by season’s end?

NCAA Football: Tennessee Volunteers football practice Calvin Mattheis-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t the biggest story of 2007, but amid all the other swirling story lines of college football’s craziest fall, Tennessee won its fourth SEC East title in 10 years. The Volunteers began in shaky fashion, losing at No. 12 California by 14 and at No. 5 Florida by 39, but they won eight of nine, taking down ranked Georgia and South Carolina teams at home, then scaring the daylights out of eventual national champion LSU in the SEC title game.

Phil Fulmer’s Vols ranked ninth in S&P+ that year, completing a rebound — after ranking in the S&P+ top 10 six times between 1993-2001, they had averaged only a No. 27 ranking from 2002-05. This was their second straight season in the top 10.

Fulmer was a tremendous coach who proved he could again find the course after he ran off it. And in 2008, the Vols ran off course once more after losing quarterback Erik Ainge. Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens struggled behind center, and Tennessee was held to 14 or fewer points in seven games. The Vols lost twice while allowing 14 or fewer, got thumped by resurgent rivals Georgia and Alabama, and finished 5-7.

That November, Tennessee and athletic director Mike Hamilton panicked. And the program hasn’t been the same since. Hamilton pressured Fulmer to resign and replaced him with that year’s hot name, Lane Kiffin, who left after one 7-6 season. Louisiana Tech’s Derek Dooley took over and went 6-7, 5-7, and 5-7. Jones replaced him and has averaged 7.5 wins per year over four seasons.

In the 10 seasons since Tennessee won the East and 10 games, the Vols have done neither. Patience is a virtue in college football; it’s also nearly impossible to execute.

After a five-win first year, Jones has taken the Vols to three straight bowls and two straight ranked finishes (22nd each year). At the least, he has brought the program back to Fulmer’s 2002-05 levels. Does he have a 2006-07 run in him?

2016 was supposed to be the year. The Vols started ninth in the polls after going 9-4 with four gut-wrenching losses to good teams (by a total of 17 points) in 2015. They clammed up with late leads, but the way 2016 began, it seemed like the demons were getting exorcised. They survived a massive challenge against Appalachian State, rode early turnovers luck to an easy 45-24 win over Virginia Tech, kept Ohio at bay (again with turnovers luck), beat Florida for the first time since 2004, and took down Georgia in one of the best games of the season.

Throughout this impossible run, however, the injuries were piling up. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin made it just four games. Running back Jalen Hurd played just seven. The offensive line started eight guys at least twice. A whopping nine regulars on defense missed at least four games.

The offense reinvented itself late in the year and soared, but the defense fell apart. After the 5-0 start came a three-game losing streak and a season-ending loss to Vanderbilt, the Vols’ third in five years. An easy bowl win over Nebraska sent quarterback Josh Dobbs out in style, but Tennessee wasn’t supposed to settle for being happy with a No. 22 ranking.

Now what? Dobbs is gone, as are running backs Hurd and Alvin Kamara, leading receiver Josh Malone, tight end Jason Croom, and four of the top six from the makeshift defensive line. There is still undeniable talent, but the offense is getting reinvented, and following last season’s collapse, the defense sort of is, too.

Jones has done a pretty good job, but in the most frustrating possible way. The needless conservatism of 2015 held back a brilliant season, and his defense fell apart just as his offense found fifth gear in 2016. That the Vols won nine games in each year is good; the regrets, however, are obvious.

It’s not too late. There are former star recruits everywhere you look, and both the offensive line and defensive back seven boast swaths of experience. Now that the pressure of 2016’s preseason rankings are off the table, maybe the Vols can relax and play football. But the pressure’s never fully off in Knoxville. Tennessee voluntarily sent an excellent coach away 10 years ago; every year since has been a desperate quest to get back what the Vols had.


2016 in review

2016 Tennessee statistical profile.

Tennessee’s 2016 was a three-parter: chaotic success, funk, and reinvention.

  • First 6 games (5-1): Avg. percentile performance: 70% (70% offense, 58% defense) | Avg. score: UT 34, Opp 27 | Avg. yards per play: UT 5.8, Opp 5.4 (plus-0.4)
  • Next 2 games (0-2): Avg. percentile performance: 29% (22% offense, 24% defense) | Avg. score: Opp 37, UT 16 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.3, UT 3.6 (minus-2.7)
  • Last 5 games (4-1): Avg. percentile performance: 75% (92% offense, 47% defense | Avg. score: UT 48, Opp 28 | Avg. yards per play: UT 8.5, Opp 6.1 (plus-2.4)

It took some smoke and mirrors to get to 5-0, and when the Vols fell to Texas A&M in overtime, the wind left the sails immediately. UT got destroyed by Alabama, then suffered an upset at the hands of South Carolina and its new quarterback, Jake Bentley.

The Tennessee Tech game was incredibly well-timed. The Vols got to relax after the loss to the Cocks, and with a fading defense forcing them to take more offensive risks, they exploded. They averaged 10.2 yards per play in a 49-36 win over Kentucky and 9.1 in a 63-37 win over Tennessee. Of course, they also allowed at least 600 yards against UK, Mizzou, and Vandy, and it caught up to them against the Dores.

Still, with the season teetering, Tennessee rallied, at least on one side of the ball. It could have been worse.


Offense

Tennessee offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

The late-year explosion made things almost more frustrating. The Vols’ formula on that side of the ball had been mostly about the end game: score a certain number of points, build a lead of a certain size, and pack it in. And despite dual-threat back Kamara (5.8 yards per carry, 40 receptions), Jones and coordinator Mike DeBord continued to ride the ineffective Hurd (3.7 yards per carry) until it was no longer an option.

Hurd’s injury forced UT to give the ball to Kamara, but then Kamara got hurt and missed two games . The pieces didn’t come together until Kamara came back and the defense made it clear that the Vols were going to need to score a lot.

And then, poof, Tennessee briefly had the best offense in the country. Oh, what could have been.

Of course, none of that matters now. All the major players are gone, and if you subscribe to the “new blood probably isn’t a bad idea” theory, then boy, are you in luck. Jones allowed DeBord to leave for Indiana.

New coordinator Larry Scott is a new coordinator, having spent the last 11 seasons as a position coach at USF, Miami, and Tennessee. The new quarterback will be either junior Quinten Dormady (39 career passes) or redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano (zero). If you don’t subscribe to the new blood theory, then this is pretty scary.

NCAA Football: Music City Bowl-Tennessee vs Nebraska
John Kelly
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Ignoring for a moment that the two new heads of the offense are green, other important figures on the offense are exciting.

  • Running back John Kelly emerged as an exciting complement to Kamara, rushing for 630 yards despite almost no action over the first half of the season. He was easily more efficient than either Kamara or Hurd, gaining at least five yards on 44 percent of his carries (Kamara was at 38 percent, Hurd 33) and generating nearly as much explosiveness as Kamara.
  • Receiver Jauan Jennings, once a top dual-threat quarterback prospect (he ranked ahead of Lamar Jackson, among others), became a solid No. 2 behind Malone last year. Malone’s production (19.4 yards per catch, 61 percent success rate) will be incredibly difficult to replace, but Jennings (14.5, 51 percent) was no slouch.
  • If the injury bug ever stops biting, the line has talent and experience. Guard Jashon Robertson enters his fourth year as a starter, and center Coleman Thomas and left tackle Brett Kendrick have been in plenty of battles. And former star recruits Jack Jones and Drew Richmond have plenty of time to prove their potential.
NCAA Football: Tennessee at South Carolina
Jauan Jennings
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, the injury bug hasn’t stopped biting — tackle Chance Hall was recently lost for the season with a knee injury, and other linemen have been sidelined with minor ailments.

Plus, one has to wonder about depth in the receiving corps. Malone and Jennings were the only wideouts with more than 15 catches last year, and while sophomores Tyler Byrd and Brandon Johnson both looked excellent in small samples (combined: 34 targets, 22 catches, 302 yards), it’s never a guarantee those rates will remain when given more targets. Sophomore Marquez Callaway, meanwhile, is an explosive athlete, but one with just one career catch to his name.

There are fewer worries about running back depth: four-star sophomore Carlin Fils-Aime got his feet wet last year, and four-star freshman Ty Chandler joins the rotation (as will two other freshmen, evidently).

Still, the primary concerns are the most obvious ones. What identity will Scott pursue? Will bare-minimum conservatism rule again? And regardless of what Scott wants to do, does he have a QB who can do it?

Defense

Tennessee defensive radar

I think I might have billed it (with) some unrealistic expectations, and when we got guys injured, maybe the guy calling the shots was a little bit stubborn right there, me. I really wanted to force-fit, this is my style of defense or whatever. I probably didn't do a great job at times of tailoring things."

Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop

As a coordinator, you spend two-thirds of a year putting together a plan for how your defense will look and how it will limit what you assume to be your opponent’s strengths. And then your two-deep gets detonated, and you find yourself either having to jam square pegs into round holes or scrounge around for round pegs. Neither is preferable.

Jones dumped John Jancek as DC after UT ranked 18th in Def. S&P+ in 2014 and 20th in 2015. It was a risky move, and on paper, he hit a home run by landing Shoop, the engineer of excellent defenses at Vanderbilt (sixth in Def. S&P+ in 2011, 27th in 2012) and Penn State (third in 2014, 16th in 2015).

Shoop didn’t suddenly forget how to coach defense as his first Vols defense sunk from 20th to 54th, but he struggled to adapt to injuries. You could make the case that the two best offenses in the country in late-November were Tennessee and whoever Tennessee was playing. And star ends Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen (combined: 30.5 tackles for loss, 20 sacks, nine passes defensed) weren’t among those missing time with injury.

The two-deep again got detonated in the offseason up front — ends Barnett, Vereen, and LaTroy Lewis are all gone, and tackle depth was already a mess when 2016 ended — but you have time to prepare a solution in that instance.

It won’t hurt that the back seven is well stocked.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Tennessee
Colton Jumper
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The top four linebackers return, including seniors Colton Jumper, Cortez McDowell, and Elliott Berry. They combined for 10.5 TFLs last year, and junior Darrin Kirkland Jr. added five more in just eight games. If he can stay healthy (he has dealt with a couple more ailments this offseason), he could live up to his four-star billing. The same goes for sophomore Quart’e Sapp, an athletic specimen who has battled injuries for two years and approaches 2017 at far less than 100 percent.

The secondary struggled mightily in dealing with injuries to players like corner Cameron Sutton, nickel Malik Foreman, and safety Evan Berry (yes, both Berrys are Eric’s brothers). Foreman and Sutton are now gone, as is safety Stephen Griffin, but there’s a solid combination of experience and young potential.

At safety, the Vols have juniors Micah Abernathy and Rashaan Gaulden and seniors Todd Kelly Jr. and Berry. The foursome combined for 12 TFLs and 14 passes defensed and will get a push from blue-chippers Nigel Warrior (sophomore) and Maleik Gray (freshman).

At corner, the pickings are a little more slim, but seniors Emmanuel Moseley and Justin Martin are still joined by sophomore Baylen Buchanan and Louisville graduate transfer Shaq Wiggins. Wiggins and Moseley are good at taking risks and getting hands on passes (and occasionally seeing those risks backfire).

NCAA Football: Music City Bowl-Tennessee vs Nebraska
Rashaan Gaulden
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

All eyes are on the line, though. The Vols still have senior Kendal Vickers and giant former blue-chippers Reginald McKenzie Jr. and Shy Tuttle at tackle (along with 336-pound, four-star freshman Eric Crosby). And it’s not too late for two more former blue-chips — juniors Kyle Phillips and Jonathan Kongbo — to put the pieces together at end. But the proven quantities are gone.

There are enough raw materials here that Shoop could certainly piece together a top-20 level defense. Step one in that regard will require most of the intended starters to remain on the field.


Special Teams

The Vols have some of the best legs in the country. Punter Trevor Daniel averaged nearly 45 yards per kick and ranked seventh in punt efficiency, while place-kicker Aaron Medley is automatic inside of 40 yards and landed half of his kickoffs for touchbacks. That’s a strong field position combination, and Evan Berry is one of the scariest kick returners in the country.

Punt returns are a mystery — Kamara is gone, but Marquez Callaway took one of his two punt returns against Tennessee Tech to the house — but this should easily be one of the best special teams units in the SEC and among the best in the country. It’s nice having that in your back pocket.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
4-Sep vs. Georgia Tech 31 2.6 56%
9-Sep Indiana State NR 35.4 98%
16-Sep at Florida 15 -9.1 30%
23-Sep Massachusetts 111 25.6 93%
30-Sep Georgia 20 0.4 51%
14-Oct South Carolina 36 7.0 66%
21-Oct at Alabama 1 -25.3 7%
28-Oct at Kentucky 41 2.8 57%
4-Nov Southern Miss 84 19.4 87%
11-Nov at Missouri 53 4.8 61%
18-Nov LSU 4 -9.6 29%
25-Nov Vanderbilt 63 11.3 74%
Projected S&P+ Rk 24
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 26 / 38
Projected wins 7.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 9.3 (30)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 14 / 13
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -2 / -3.4
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 51% (42%, 61%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 8.0 (1.0)

Jones inherited a program that had, over its previous three seasons, averaged 5.3 wins per year with an average S&P+ ranking of 42.

Since a 5-7 debut, he has averaged 8.3 wins and a ranking of 26. That is undeniable progress.

But the missteps of the last two seasons, combined with Tennessee’s decade-long quest to fix its own mistakes, have created a uniquely tense, high-pressure environment.

Turnover has led to lowered expectations this season, but if the Vols find a quarterback and deal with fewer injuries, they could make a nice go of 2017. S&P+ forecasts only one sure loss (at Alabama) and four likely wins, with five more games between 51 and 66 percent win probability. Exceeding their No. 24 projected ranking could mean nine wins again.

But those are significant ifs. A more conservative, seven- or eight-win expectation feels right.

Well, it feels right to me, anyway. Nothing will feel right to Vols fans until they at least get back to 2007 levels.

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