jabari small tenn rb

2021 Tennessee Volunteers Football Preview

Tennessee is making the complete shift in the transition from a defensive coach to a pass-heavy fast offense under new Head Coach Josh Heupel. 

UT has two transfer QB’s battling Harrison Bailey to win the starting job which remains open. At RB, Jabari Small will get his shot to break out after the top two RB’s from ’20 left the team.

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Let’s get into our Q&A session with Blake Toppmeyer! He covers Tennessee football for the USA Today Network. You can follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer and read more of his work at Knox News.

Overall, how do you believe the offense will compare to the 2020 version?

The offense will be a 180-degree change from the 2020 version. Former coach Jeremy Pruitt embraced a risk-averse system. At times, the Vols moved at a plodding pace.

That all changes with first-year coach Josh Heupel. He’s installing an up-tempo spread offense that he showed as UCF’s head coach and Missouri’s offensive coordinator. The offense will feature a heavy dose of run-pass option plays, while also incorporating a lot of downfield passing. It’s a balanced offense that doesn’t ignore the run game, but everything operates at warp speed.

Quarterbacks will be given the freedom to “rip it all over the field,” as quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle put it, which is different from the Pruitt era, when UT quarterbacks were tasked first and foremost with avoiding mistakes.

Bottom line: This offense will be more aggressive and more quarterback friendly, but the Vols need the right quarterback in place for it to be effective.

What do you expect from the QB position in 2021?

Tennessee has five scholarship quarterbacks in a competition that remains open. Headliners include Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, Michigan transfer Joe Milton and Harrison Bailey, who started the final three games for Tennessee last season as a true freshman.

Whoever wins the job must be able to process information quickly, a requirement in Heupel’s system. They also must be adept at making good decisions on RPOs. And, although a big arm perhaps isn’t a requirement, Heupel definitely relishes quarterbacks who can air it out.

Tennessee hasn’t had adequate quarterback production since Joshua Dobbs’ exit after the 2016 season, and getting that position right will be one of Heupel’s biggest tasks.

How do you see the workload at RB being distributed?

Jabari Small and junior college transfer Tiyon Evans will shoulder the load, with freshman Jaylen Wright and Dee Beckwith behind them.

Small was Tennessee’s third-string running back as a freshman last year but shot up the depth chart following Eric Gray’s transfer to Oklahoma and Ty Chandler’s transfer to North Carolina. Evans was the nation’s top-ranked junior college running back in the 2021 recruiting class.

How does the offensive line compare to the 2020 group?

The offensive line lost three starters, including second-team All-America honoree Trey Smith. Cade Mays will anchor the line. Darnell Wright and Jerome Carvin are veterans with ample starting experience. The tackle spots are the biggest question marks. Mays’ best position is right guard, but the Vols might need to use him at tackle.

What do you think the distribution will be to the WR/TE's?

Top targets should include wide receivers Velus Jones and Jalin Hyatt. Heupel has shown at past stops that he’ll incorporate tight ends in the passing game if he has the talent, but the Vols are thin on pass catchers at the position, with the exception of Princeton Fant.

For our dynasty fantasy freaks, who are some young players that stand out as potential future breakout players?

The aforementioned Small should become a featured back in his second season. Second-year receivers Hyatt and Jimmy Calloway should be featured more prominently in this scheme. Freshman wide receiver Walker Merrill didn’t receive as much fanfare as some other signees, but he showed during the spring that he could be a factor in the wide receiver rotation. Evans has star potential. On defense, junior college addition Byron Young and second-year player Tyler Baron should fare well as pass rushers.

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