The Tennessee Volunteers stand on the precipice of very goodness. The question is not if the Vols will resemble their more successful eras, but when? Will the team achieve this in 2015? Or 2016? There is so much excitement in Knoxville surrounding the football team these days that success to some degree is assumed. However, Tennessee still has little room for error in many areas, so let us take a look at what could lead to a worst case scenario and another mediocre season.
Joshua Dobbs Gets Injured
Sure. There has been high praise for presumed backup Quinten Dormady in fall camp so far, but reliance on a true freshman quarterback in the Southeastern Conference is always iffy. Adjusting to the speed of the game from high school to high level college football is difficult. Dormandy might have a productive career at some point at UT, but we saw what the offense could consistently do last season before Dobbs became the starter. Justin Worley was a wizened senior and still the offense was mostly mediocre. Asking Dormandy to be even as good as Worley was in commanding the offense may be asking too much.
The Receiving Corps Find a Way to Stay Injured
All Tennessee fans remember the Vanderbilt game last year, right? The Vols won 24-17, but were actually outgained in yardage by a Vanderbilt team that had (until it played Tennessee) lost every SEC game by double-figures. Dobbs threw for only 92 yards and completed passes to only three receivers, one of them a running back. A lot of this ineffectiveness was due to many receivers being injured. Jason Croom, Josh Smith and Marquez North were all hurt. In fall camp, several Tennessee receivers have missed time due to injury. One might wonder if North will ever remain healthy for an entire season. Alton “Pig” Howard, now in his 13th season at UT (or so it seems), has managed to stay upright, but if he were hurt the Vols would miss him more than most might think. Howard has also missed time in fall camp. If the Vols are faced with defeating Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, et al. with only a running game, the season will be a disappointment.
The Defensive Line Does Not Meet Expectations
Whether one believes in sophomore slumps or not, there is enough evidence that players in all sports may be more apt to struggle in their second year after a highly successful first season. This could be because opponents know better how to attack a player’s weaknesses. Defensive end Derek Barnett was phenomenal as a freshman, but a step back in 2015 is not without possibility. If Barnett does not meet expectations, that could lead to the entire position group underperforming. There would be more pressure on freshmen defensive tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle. Both Tuttle and McKenzie have loads of potential, but they have never faced anything like SEC offensive lines. There could be games where both struggle. Upperclassmen depth would then be a factor, and Tennessee has players at the position who have histories of injuries, such Trevarris Saulsberry. The defensive line exceeded expectations last year, and Tennessee needs them to again this season.
Whoever is Chosen as the Mike Linebacker Is Not Good Enough
The Vols were forced to try to fill a position of strength near the end of last season when middle linebacker A.J. Johnson was dismissed from the team due to sexual assault allegations. The problem is that UT is still trying to find the answer. Currently, there are three players competing for the job, junior Kenny Bynum (who was one of the players who filled in last season), sophomore Colton Jumper and true freshmen Darrin Kirkland Jr. Kirkland showed speed and menace in high school all-star games last year, but he will also need to adjust to the speed of the college game while also learning the defensive assignments for all players as the mike linebacker sets the defense. Bynum did not do enough in 2014 to prove he should be the starter this year. Jumper is more of an unknown product. The fact that UT likes its linebackers more on the small size but with lots of speed would seem to make the position Kirkland’s to lose. The risk is that as a true freshman, and therefore inexperienced, he will make incorrect defensive play calls and that could open up more possibilities for offenses to have big plays. Against early season opponent Oklahoma, that could cost the team the game. The first half of the season could be difficult for the middle linebacker position, and Tennessee is not yet good enough to overcome that.
Who will be the punter? And how effective will the punter be? Tennessee’s margin for error is so small in some games that even decent field position for the other team due to poor punting might be the reason Tennessee loses. This is an issue that the Vols must figure out before the first game.
Most of the issues above will not be a negative for the Vols this coming season, but in a worst case scenario all of them will be. Tennessee has the potential to win nine games. They also have the potential to win six. A six win season at this point in the Butch Jones era would be disappointing. One thing is obvious, though, the answers, whether good or bad, to all of the potential problems will be revealed in less than a month. It’s football time in Tennessee.