Back, With Something to Prove
The Tennessee Volunteers kick off the 2018 season in less than a week. A long-anticipated date with the seventeenth ranked West Virginia Mountaineers looms large for these Vols who have been considered the underdogs for the tilt in Charlotte since the 2017 season ended. Analysts have been singing the praises of the Mountaineers all off season, while the Vols licked their wounds from a program worst 4-8 season and a debacle of a coaching search that had Tennessee as the punchline for many jokes from the national media. Still, the Vols may end up with the last laugh, as reviews from players and those close to the program would indicate that Tennessee may have landed themselves a quality Head Coach in Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt has many questions to answer himself going into his first game as a head coach, but many have wondered just how much success Pruitt can have this season with the players off the 2017 roster. However, a surface glance at the 2017 season may not reveal what Pruitt has at his disposal in 2018.
There were many things that Tennessee fans will remember about Butch Jones and his time as the head coach in Knoxville. Some of those things will be good, while others still leave Vol fans wondering what might have been. The most defining characteristic of the Jones regime, however, at least the one most impactful on the field, was the insane amount of injuries that Tennessee endured. The Vols had an above average number of injuries during Jones’s first three seasons in Knoxville, with certain position groups like the Wide Receivers in 2014 and 2015, being decimated by injuries. Those first three seasons pale in comparison to what the Vols endured in 2016 and 2017. The Vols lost nearly the entire opening day roster on defense to injury in 2016, and then lost most of the primary backups. Tennessee then played Alabama with an offensive line made up entirely of backups that season, as the entire group had been lost as well. The injuries in 2016 were unprecedented, and then remarkably, appeared to be equaled again in 2017. The injury bug has been a plague of locusts to the Volunteers over the last two seasons. That said, this should be a source of hope for Pruitt and Company in 2018. The 2017 Vols had several of their most established and best players miss most, if not all, of the season. These players are now back, healthy, and ready to contribute to the 2018 season, beginning with the largest contributor of all.
When Chance Hall was lost for the entire season before the Georgia Tech game last season, the Vols didn’t just lose their best offensive lineman, they lost one of the best players on the roster. Hall has produced from the day he stepped on campus in Knoxville, and the Vols are simply better with him healthy and on the field. Hall has fought through multiple knee injuries in his time at Tennessee, but he has managed to produce through it all. In 2015, Chance Hall was inserted into the lineup against Georgia due to injury to the starter. The Vols trailed Georgia, but once Hall and fellow true freshman Jack Jones were inserted into the lineup, the comeback was on. The Vols roared back to beat Georgia in Neyland Stadium, and Hall anchoring the offensive line from his Left Tackle spot was a big reason why. Hall was honored in 2015 as a Freshman All-American and was the lock to start the 2016 season at Tackle. Injuries hampered Hall in 2016, but even when he played through them, the Vols were simply better on offense with the big Roanoke, VA native on the field. The loss of Hall before the season began in 2017 left the Vols without their anchor on the left side of the line and the unit in shambles. Hall’s absence was one of the key factors in the struggles that the offense endured in 2017.
Now, set to return and participating in full contact drills in practice, it appears that Hall is primed to reclaim a starting spot on the line and help these 2018 Vols surprise people. Hall has had success in the SEC as a Tackle but could see work this fall as a Guard. The Vols have several players that can be quality tackles in Hall, Drew Richmond, and Trey Smith. It is hard to imagine the best five lineman the Vols can put on the field not including all three of those guys, which means someone is moving inside. Hall may be the most likely candidate not due to a lack of skill, but due to recovering from his knee injury. If Hall has any lingering issues with the lateral movement in his knee, they would be far less evident if he were playing inside at Guard rather than out on an island at Tackle. This would also mean that the Vols could put their nastiest lineman, and one of their most ferocious run blockers, in a phone booth where he can excel at what he does best, mauling the man across from him. A left side of the line made up of Trey Smith and Chance Hall would be difficult for Jeremy Pruitt and Tyson Helton to pass up for the health of their run game. Hall is a huge player returning for the Vols figuratively and literally.
Darrin Kirkland Jr.
Another player that missed the entire 2017 season for the Vols was another of the best players on the roster. Kirkland was the unquestioned leader of the Tennessee defense on and off the field. Kirkland made the calls for the entire defense, has an off the charts football IQ, and has the athletic ability to take full advantage of what his mind processed. A sideline to sideline tackling machine and bona fide playmaker, Kirkland was the heartbeat of the Tennessee defense. Losing him was more than just a loss of a talented player, it was the loss of the soul on that side of the ball.
As the season progressed, other young players, Daniel Bituli and Nigel Warrior, began to grow into that leadership void left by Kirkland’s injury, but none ever truly filled the gap. Kirkland choosing to return to the Vols after very nearly leaving as a graduate transfer is a massive boon for the Volunteer defense. Kirkland steps in as a player at Middle Linebacker that has a legitimate chance to end the season as an All SEC player, a huge addition for Pruitt that was completely absent from the 2017 Vols.
Unlike Hall and Kirkland, Jauan Jennings did at least get to play for the Vols in 2017. Also, like Hall and Kirkland, Jennings was awarded a redshirt for the 2017 season as he played less than a single half against Georgia Tech before sustaining a season ending injury to his arm. The loss of Jennings was a crippling blow to a Tennessee offense that was attempting to replace an enormous amount of production already in 2017. Jennings was the unquestioned number one receiving option for Tennessee coming into 2017 and was a vocal leader on offense. Jennings is a fierce competitor, and while it occasionally got him into trouble, his intensity on the field was unquestioned and pushed his teammates to play at a higher level. His attitude elevated the play of those around him, and the team and fans seemed to feed off his energy, especially after making a big play. Like Kirkland, when the Vols lost Jennings, they not only lost maybe their best player on that side of the ball, they lost their soul.
A tumultuous off season saw Jennings kicked off the team by an interim staff, and then given the opportunity to rejoin the team by Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt himself said that he did not expect Jennings to fulfill what they required of him to rejoin the team. Not only did Jennings do it, he completed the tasks far faster than anyone anticipated. Jauan Jennings wants to be a Volunteer. He wants to run through the T, he wants to compete, and he wants to win. The Vols are going to get an extremely motivated Jennings in 2018, now playing for a coaching staff that will value his intensity, a staff that is capable of teaching him a healthy way to focus it for the best of the team. Jennings had All SEC aspirations in 2017, and those should be firmly in place for 2018. A supremely motivated Jennings is something that no one in the SEC is excited about being forced to contain.
Todd Kelly Jr.
Todd Kelly Jr. was injured in the Vols win over Indiana State early in the 2017 season with a knee injury that many feared could end his career at the time. However, after undergoing surgery with the famed Dr. James Andrews, the Knoxville native and Webb School product is prepared to return for his fifth year of eligibility with the Vols.
Kelly was a five-star recruit at Safety and a Tennessee legacy when he enrolled at Tennessee, and the expectations were through the roof. As a freshman, Kelly was limited in how much he saw the field but made an impact when he was given his opportunities. Once Kelly became the full-time starter for the Vols, he regularly flashed the abilities that had made him such a highly sought-after recruit, showing he could make plays on the ball in coverage, as well as delivering crushing hits across the middle of the field. Kelly entered the 2017 season as one of the Volunteers’ few returning veterans, a leader on the defense on the field an in the locker room. Kelly was not only a talented player, he was well respected and liked by his teammates. While the Vols were fortunate to have depth a Safety, which was another position that was razor thin by season’s end, Kelly was missed for his leadership and experience in the back end of the defense. Returning as a fifth-year senior, with the talent and aspirations to make it to the NFL, Kelly has an enormous amount to prove going into the 2018 season for the scouts at the next level. That said, Kelly’s focus appears to be clearly on the present, and trying to end his UT career on a high note, leading his team, and learning all he can from Jeremy Pruitt. Expect to see Kelly flash his ability to make plays in coverage, as well as delivering devastating hits, regularly in a Jeremy Pruitt scheme that will rely heavily on he and Nigel Warrior at the Safety spot.
These are some extremely talented players that were lost essentially for the entire 2017 season that will now be at Jeremy Pruitt’s disposal. These four players were all legitimate All SEC caliber players under Butch Jones and his system. The development that Jeremy Pruitt can bring for these young men, as well as the desire to rebound from injury means that the Vols should expect to have a serious amount of talent that was unavailable for all of 2017 back in the starting lineup for the 2018 season. These are impact players on the field, and four of the unquestioned leaders for the Vols both before and after their injuries. As talented as they are as athletes, their return could be felt in far more than just their skill as athletes. Pruitt is inheriting four All SEC caliber players, but he is also regaining the heart and soul of his new offense and defense.