Vols aiming at ending SEC East title drought
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee has plenty of new faces chasing the same old goal that has eluded the Volunteers for a decade.
The Vols are chasing Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title that has eluded them since 2007. Tennessee hasn’t won the SEC since its 1998 national championship. Tennessee went hungry again last year despite being picked to win the East and opening the season ranked ninth.
There’s more skepticism surrounding Tennessee this year. In a preseason poll of SEC media , Tennessee was picked to finish third in the East, behind Georgia and Florida.
That’s just fine with the Vols.
“I prefer to be the underdog,” defensive end Darrell Taylor said. “I’ve always been an underdog my whole life. I’m ready to eat. We’re all ready to eat.”
Tennessee coach Butch Jones overhauled his coaching staff after the Vols followed up a 5-0 start last year by splitting their final eight games. Jones is now working for a new athletic director , John Currie, who didn’t hire him but has expressed his support for the coach entering his fifth season.
Jones also must select a new quarterback now that Joshua Dobbs has departed after starting 35 games over the last four seasons. Dobbs was one of six former Tennessee players selected in the first four rounds of the most recent draft, forcing the Vols to search for new star power.
That helps explain why Tennessee is picked to finish behind two teams that lost to the Vols last season. Tennessee feels confident it can outperform those expectations but knows it must avoid a repeat of its late-season fade from a year ago.
“We’re looking at this as a new season,” safety Todd Kelly Jr. said. “Of course you can’t just ignore it. You learn from the process and realize what it feels like to lose games like that, so when you’re in that opportunity again, you don’t let it happen”
Before the start of preseason camp, Kelly compared the Vols to a “snake in the grass” and said that “our goal is to end up biting somebody at the end of the day and making them pay.” Taylor made a similar reference in describing Tennessee’s underdog approach.
“I feel like we’re laying in the grass waiting to strike,” Taylor said. “Our team isn’t talked about as much now. I feel like we’re just waiting for our opportunity to shine.”
Here are some things to watch with Tennessee this year.
Who’s the QB?
After starting 35 games over the last four years, Dobbs was drafted in the fourth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The main candidates to replace Dobbs are junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. Dormady has more experience, while Guarantano is more mobile. It won’t be a surprise if both quarterbacks play in the first game or two.
Tennessee overhauled its coaching staff in the offseason. The new assistants include quarterbacks coach Mike Canales, receivers coach Kevin Beard, offensive line coach Walt Wells, defensive line coach Brady Hoke, secondary coach Charlton Warren and strength coach Rock Gullickson. Larry Scott was promoted from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator after Mike DeBord left for the same position at Indiana .
Tennessee’s defense struggled down the stretch last season and now must replace Philadelphia Eagles first-round draft pick Derek Barnett , the school’s all-time sack leader. Nobody on Tennessee’s current roster had more than 2 ½ sacks last year. Top pass-rushing contenders include Jonathan Kongbo, Kyle Phillips and Taylor.
John and Juan
Tennessee’s offense figures to rely heavily on running back John Kelly and receiver Jauan Jennings. Kelly rushed for 630 yards last season , including 515 over his final six games. Jennings showed his ability to produce in big situations last year by scoring the go-ahead touchdown against Florida and making a Hail Mary touchdown reception as time expired to beat Georgia.
Tennessee opens the season by playing three games in a span of 13 days. The Vols face Georgia Tech on Sept. 4 at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium before hosting Indiana State on Sept. 9 and visiting Florida on Sept. 16.
Each of the last two years, Tennessee has ended up 9-4. A third straight 9-4 finish looks like a strong possibility.