Spring Review: Tennessee Volunteers

On3 imageby:Nick Roush06/01/23


Josh Heupel, Joe Milton
Eric Espada / Stringer PhotoG/Getty

Spring practices have concluded across the Southeastern Conference. You kept a close eye on what was happening with Kentucky football, but how did the Wildcats’ opponents fare? KSR has everything you need to know from spring about the guys that will line up on the other side of the line of scrimmage this fall. We saved the worst for last, the Tennessee Volunteers.

Past Spring Reviews: Vanderbilt CommodoresFlorida GatorsGeorgia BulldogsMississippi State BulldogsMissouri TigersAlabama Crimson TideSouth Carolina Gamecocks, Louisville Cardinals

All Aboard the Joe Milton Hype Train

Tennessee’s CFB Playoff dreams came crashing down in dramatic fashion when Hendon Hooker suffered a season-ending knee injury the midst of an embarrassing outing at South Carolina. Despite the late misstep, the Vols still finished with 11 wins, the most since 2001.

Tennessee got their 11th win in the Orange Bowl with Joe Milton taking snaps. The Michigan transfer’s arm was never in question — he could probably throw it out of Neyland Stadium — but his accuracy and decision-making was so out there, he became an online punchline. In the bowl game against Clemson, a 31-14 win, he proved he can perform at a high-level in Josh Heupel’s offense, completing nearly 70% of his passes for 251 yards and three scores.

If Milton performs at that level all season, the Volunteers could find themselves back in contention in November. If not, they at least have a decent backup plan. Volleyball player Nico Iamaleava is the $8 million man who can accurately deliver the ball downfield. The first sign of troubles for Milton will certainly fire up a quarterback controversy in the rabid fanbase.

While I’m looking forward to infighting in Knoxville, others are already preparing for a Joe Milton Heisman campaign. From the front page of the mothership earlier this week:

Cal the Vols Figure out the Pass Defense ?

The Tennessee offense invites teams to get into a track meet. The porous secondary lets it happen. Opponents gained over 405 yard per game against the Tennessee Volunteers last fall. Most of those came through the air, ranking 12th in the SEC in pass defense. History may repeat itself again.

While questions about the secondary linger, Tennessee was exceptional upfront at stopping the run and creating havoc behind the line of scrimmage. The Vols ranked second in the SEC and in the Top 15 nationally in tackles for loss (93), while allowing 115.7 rushing yard per game, only trailing Georgia in the SEC.

Tennessee lost its top pass rusher, Byron Young, who led the Vols in sacks over the past two seasons, but they do return linebacker Aaron Beasley. Last fall he was Tennessee’s top tackler with 76 take-downs, including 13 for loss, three sacks, three pass break ups, and nine quarterback hurries. The returning senior has enough help behind him on the depth chart that he abstained from scrimmages to remain healthy for the fall.

Anchor on the Tennessee Offensive Line

In order to make big plays through the air down the field, Joe Milton needs time to throw the football. Josh Heupel will provide some help with max protection, but the big uglies gotta do their part. Tennessee lost two significant starters, left guard Jerome Carvin and right tackle Darnell Wright, the tenth overall pick in the NFL Draft.

Despite the losses, they’ll still be in good hand upfront with Cooper Mays calling the shots at center. The blue chip legacy recruit is entering his third season as a full-time starter. Mays will make sure the entire unit is on the same page while the Vols break in newcomers at a couple of spots.

Tennessee Looking for New Playmakers in Offensive Transition

Tennessee had two of the best vertical playmakers in college football, Cedric Tillman and Biletnikoff Award winner Jalin Hyatt. While replacing them will not be easy, a Tennessee fan will remind you that was what critics said when their predecessors were selected in the NFL Draft. Heupel now has five wide receivers selected during his brief tenure in Knoxville.

Bru McCoy is most likely to produce big numbers this fall, but elbow surgery sidelined him for the entire spring. His absence allowed for others to get involved, however, this all comes back to one big question that will define the Tennessee Volunteers’ 2023 football season.

Is it Josh Heupel’s system or the players?

Hendon Hooker was incredibly accurate and he used his legs to get frustrating third and longs that extended drives. He also had a couple of bonafide bad-asses running deep choice routes that led to explosive plays. Can the next group execute Heupel’s system as efficiently, and will the rest of the SEC catch up to the Vols?

Josh Heupel exceeded early expectations by seemingly capturing lightning in a bottle with the right talent for his scheme. This year will serve as a litmus test to see how well this style can work in the long term.

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