It’s been a while since Tennessee, realistically anyway, has been hyped up this big. Many thought last year the hype for this team was premature, which I would agree, even though all of Tennessee’s four losses came in single digit, heartbreaking fashion. This year though, the Volunteers have a lot of returning starters from a team that grew and learned a lot from last year. Not to mention a coaching staff that I believed has learned too. It also helps that Tennessee has a coach that has been here over three years since Phillip Fulmer. Coaching stability is a big key to a big football program in a football crazy conference. Here are some of the things Tennessee must do in the off-season in order to match the high expectations coming into the 2016 season.
Tennessee Football Off-Season Needs
One of the things is to improve the secondary. The defense was up and down last year but found its stride as the season went on. This year, with some great incoming talent and new defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, things should definitely improve. The return of Cam Sutton is huge, but the Vols are losing safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrel McNeil. Todd Kelly Jr. will be a full time starter and while Evan Berry excited Vol fans for his kick returns, he more than likely will be at safety again as well. After all, he did have that 99-yard interception return for a touchdown against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. Also adding a guy like Nigel Warrior back there will only help the Tennessee defense.
Another thing is improving the passing game. Like the defense, it did get better as the season went on, but it must be consistent. Josh Dobbs is a great runner, and it’s always great to have a quarterback who can run but he can also still improve at the passing game. Good defenses will know Tennessee can run the ball, not just with Dobbs, but with running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. They will do a lot to stop the run so when that happens, Dobbs will need to use his arm to pass to the talented receivers. As far as receivers go, Marquez North surprisingly declared for the NFL draft after a short, injury plagued career at UT and they’re also losing Von Pearson and Johnathon Johnson, so replacing them will be a challenge. Josh Malone however, is one of the returning receivers and is also the leading receiver on the team. Josh Smith has always been a very underrated receiver to me as his quickness and his catching ability goes. Not to mention sophomores Jauan Jennings and Preston Williams could be a very dangerous receiver duo for defenses.
The offensive line needs to be elite. Not only does defense win championships, but a great offensive line does too. In 2014, Tennessee had to replace the entire offensive line. Now? The Vols have depth and talent at the line, not to mention, more experience. They are losing Kyler Kerybson, who had a very good season in his final year at UT so replacing him is going to be a big step for this team. Drew Richmond, who red shirted last season and was a big get in the recruiting class at UT in 2015, could very well take his place. Richmond was one of the highly touted offensive tackles in the country. Other than that though, the line is returning All-SEC guard, Dylan Weisman, as well as Jashon Robertson, Coleman Thomas and Chance Hall. Other guys that could break into the rotation for the line are Jack Jones, Venzell Boulware and Charles Moseley. The offensive line however, finally looks to be a very good line for the first time in what seems like forever and it should be a bright spot on the team.
These are just some of the things UT must do in order to take that next step. Under Butch Jones, the Vols have improved every year. From going 5-7 to 7-6 to 9-4. Now it’s time to move into elite level territory in the SEC. It’s been a while since Tennessee has been in that conversation, but if they do these things, you very well could see Tennessee and elite in the same sentence again.