The Tennessee Volunteers need to have several players deliver a breakout season in 2019 if they are to improve upon their 5-7 mark from last year. Head coach Jeremy Pruitt spent this off-season revamping his coaching staff and building a roster of unproven talent as he continues to strive to build the program in his image. As Tennessee gears up for the annual Orange and White Spring game on April 13th, let’s take a look at some contenders to have breakout seasons for the Vols in 2019.
Breakout Season Contenders
Eric Gray, a former 4-star running back from the Memphis area, was a 3-time Tennessee Titans Mr. Football winner in high school. He knows how to make an immediate and lasting impact on a program. The promising freshman enrolled early this spring in order to do just that, preparing for the speed of the SEC. He is currently sidelined from contact due to off-season shoulder surgery, but that hasn’t seemed to stop him from preparing for the coming season.
During a recent interview, Pruitt spoke about Gray’s preparation for the upcoming season. “He really has worked hard in there, kind of off the field, [in the] film room, … learning assignments. We’ve almost had to hold him back a little bit…”
This work ethic will only continue to impress his coaches and teammates. Currently, Tennessee’s backfield has some good talent but lacks star power. Gray could provide an explosive change of pace from one dimensional runners like Tim Jordan with his power style and Ty Chandler with his top end speed. While Chandler will likely remain the featured back to start the season, look for Gray to provide a mix of speed and power that could be hard to keep off the field. As he adapts his game to the collegiate level, he will also likely carve out a bigger role in the later half of the season.
Dominick Wood-Anderson came in with high expectations from himself, coaches and fans alike. That made his final stat line of 17 catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns all the more disappointing. However, much of the lack of production can be attributed to poor pass protection and passing game in general. Last year, the tight end was used as a blocker much more than a receiver. With new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney calling the shots, the tight end should get more looks, and Dominick Wood-Anderson is a talented pass catching tight end.
There is a reason elite programs and coaches like Alabama and Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher at Florida State wanted to see Wood-Anderson at their program. Wood-Anderson presents a wide catch radius for quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. He can also make himself big in the redzone. Both of his touchdown catches from 2018 were play-action passes in short yardage situations inside the five yard line. He has already been garnering positive reviews from the coaching staff this spring, and he was singled out as a star of the closed scrimmage this past weekend.
Dominick Wood-Anderson, Ty Chandler, Josh Palmer singled out as stars from Tennessee’s closed Saturday scrimmage https://t.co/vIQOo9UeZJ
— RockyTopTalk (@RockyTopTalk) April 1, 2019
With Jim Chaney’s propensity to utilize the tight end in the passing game, look for Wood-Anderson to receive more targets and capitalize on increased usage in 2019.
We placed Brandon Kennedy in our newcomers to watch list at the beginning of last season. Then an early knee injury derailed any hopes he might have had on making an impact along an otherwise woeful offensive line in 2018. We’ll see if he can be a difference maker in 2019 and lead a young group with plenty of raw talent to be an asset rather than a liability.
Kennedy will provide a veteran leader on a line that may feature the most underclassmen in the SEC. Pruitt was vocally frustrated with the poor offensive line play last year. He made no qualms regarding his openness to start true freshmen in order to instill his culture. Kennedy is a player bred in that culture from their time together at Alabama. The offensive line could very well include true freshmen Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright alongside Sophomore Jerome Carvin. Kennedy will be the lone returning senior on this offensive line. If he can command an effective group ripe with unproven talent, he could be the difference in an effective run game and pass protection.
Jerome Carvin, Josh Palmer, Brandon Johnson, Tim Jordan
With all four starters from 2018 leaving for graduation, someone has to step up on the defensive line for the Vols. Junior defensive tackle Emmit Gooden was a steady contributor in the rotation last year. Off the bench, he was able to accumulate 33 tackles and one sack. With a more featured role in the defense, he will look to add to those numbers and provide more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Much of Pruitt’s defense begins at the line of scrimmage. Gooden will be depended upon to use his large frame to reset the line of scrimmage in the backfield and create lanes for the linebackers to make plays. A JUCO transfer just a year ago, Gooden has the size and strength Pruitt wants in his interior linemen. With a full year in Pruitt’s defense, Gooden is no longer learning how to play D1 football. Look for him to lead an otherwise young and unproven group.
Junior College players are recruited to programs to make an immediate impact at a position of need. There may not be a greater position of need for Tennessee than defensive line this year, and Savion Williams will look to make an impact at the strong side defensive end position in his first year on Rocky Top.
Alexis Johnson made a large leap in his last year under Pruitt. He was able to use his surprising athleticism coupled with his size to produce really well from the strong side defensive end in the 3-4. Williams has the same combination of strength and athleticism to rush the passer and consume blockers to free up linebackers. If he can adapt to the speed of the SEC, he could be poised to hit the ground running in Knoxville.
Darrell Taylor flashed his brilliant skill set as a pass rusher in 2018. His two best games included three and four sack performances in games against Georgia and Kentucky respectively. Unfortunately, he only finished the season with eight total sacks, as he all but disappeared in other games for Tennessee. When Taylor is on his game, he is one of the elite pass rushers in the SEC. Taylor’s speed and explosiveness provide match-up problems for tackles. In addition, his combination of strength means he can provide some versatility in blitz packages running stunts to the inside. Watch this clip of Taylor creating havoc in the backfield with pressure from the inside and outside.
“Josh Allen is the best defender in the SEC this year”
Darrell Taylor “hold my beer” pic.twitter.com/L2zc3XIxqa
— VoʟBʟooᴅ (@volblood) November 11, 2018
If Taylor can become more consistent, he has the potential to become a menace for opposing offenses at the outside linebacker spot. Pruitt will expect more dependable play from the senior this year. Coaches and teammates will look toward him to be a leader on an otherwise young defense. He has looked uncomfortable at times in non-passing situations reading the play and reacting. The move to linebacker was new for Taylor in 2018. With another off-season and year of experience at outside linebacker, he would undoubtedly like to improve his draft stock in his senior season. If he is able to do that, it would mean a breakout season to end his Tennessee career.
Trevon Flowers’ freshman season was off to a promising start when he suffered a broken collarbone during the bye week. He was never able to break back into the lineup in 2018. Still, in the first five games of the season, he had made one start and accumulated nine tackles and one pass break up. Prior to his injury, Pruitt was seeing a lot of improvement and potential in the young safety. After his injury, Pruitt stated, “It’s unfortunate for him because he really had improved in the last two or three weeks and had a great off week…”
Defensive coordinator and secondary coach Derek Ansley has been very complimentary of the secondary since arriving on campus, stating “These guys have done everything I’ve asked them to do, … and I like the fact that they go out there and work hard every single day and work on their craft.” A two sport athlete, Flowers shows fantastic athleticism and instincts with the ball in the air. In his five games of action last year, you could see the game slow down for him. He began to read routes and offenses better before being sidelined. Now he returns with two of the best secondary coaches in the business in Pruitt and Ansley. If he can pick up where he left off, Tennessee’s secondary could be led by a trio of sophomore standouts in Alontae Taylor, Bryce Thompson and Flowers.
J.J. Peterson, Aubrey Solomon, Will Ignont, Theo Jackson