(Part 10 of a 14-part SEC preview series)
Having put together back-to-back 9-4 seasons and three straight bowl wins, the Tennessee Volunteers seek to move up in the Southeastern Conference standings.
Butch Jones enters his fifth campaign in Knoxville with 16 incumbent starters (7 offense, 7 defense, 2 kicking specialists).
Tennessee's offensive success will hinge on a new quarterback. With second-team All-SEC selection Joshua Dobbs at the controls, the Vols (9-4, 4-4) ranked second in the SEC in scoring (36.4 points per game), fifth in passing (238.5 yards per game), seventh in rushing (205.2 ypg) and fifth in total offense (443.7 ypg).
Junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano are the candidates to succeed Dobbs. Dormady completed 11-of-17 passes for 148 yards in four games last fall. Guarantano, a dualthreat, is regarded as the quarterback of the future.
Junior tailback John Kelly (98 carries, 630 yards, 5 touchdowns) is the only returning ball carrier with significant experience.
Junior Jauan Jennings (40 receptions, 580 yards, 7 TDs) and senior tight end Ethan Wolf (21-239-2) are the top returning receivers for the new quarterback, along with senior WR Josh Smith (13-97-1). Jennings' 43-yard touchdown catch as time expired lifted the Vols to a 34-31 victory over Georgia.
Four linemen with a combined 111 career starts return up front after helping the Vols to a school record 473 points last year. Senior Jashon Robertson (39 career games, 35 starts) is the ring leader of the group. Senior left tackle Brett Kendrick, senior center Coleman Thomas and junior right tackle Chance Hall return. Freshman right guard Trey Smith is the lone newcomer to the starting group.
Tennessee is looking to upgrade its defense after ranking ninth in the league in scoring (28.8 ppg), 11th in rushing (218.5 ypg), 10th in passing (230.7 ypg) and 11th in total offense (449.2 ypg).
Eight of the top nine tacklers return, led by senior strong safety Todd Kelly Jr. (71 tackles for loss, 2 tackles, 1 sack, 2 interceptions), junior free safety Micah Abernathy (69 tackles, 2 INTs) and nickel back Rashaan Gaulden (68 tackles, 6 TFL).
In all, the Vols have eight defensive backs with starting experience, including senior cornerback Emmanuel Moseley (57, 3 TFL in 9 starts). Louisville graduate transfer Shaq Wiggins and senior Justin Martin (19 tackles) are also pushing for playing time at the corners.
Up front, the Vols are looking to fill the void left by All-American end Derek Barnett, who notched an SEC-leading 13 sacks.
Juniors Jonathan Kongbo and Kyle Phillips move into starting roles at end. Senior Kendal Vickers (38, 6 TFL, 2.5 sacks), who missed spring practice with a shoulder injury, is the only returnee on the front line, with junior Khalil McKenzie penciled in at the other tackle.
Seniors Cortez McDowell (54 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack) and Colton Jumper (61 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 INT) and junior Darrin Kirkland Jr. (45 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack in 8 games) give the Vols a trio of veteran linebackers.
Both kickers are back for their seniors seasons. Trevor Daniel averaged 44.6 yards on 70 punts, with 28 inside the 20. Aaron Medley was 11-of-16 on field goals with a long of 46 and was perfect on 61 PATs.
Explosive senior Evan Berry returned 14 kickoffs for an SEC-best 32.9-yard average and one touchdown.
2017 TENNESSEE SCHEDULE
(All Times Central)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 4 (Mon.) vs. Georgia Tech (at Atlanta) 7 p.m.
Sept. 9 Indiana State TBA
Sept. 16 at Florida* 2:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 Massachusetts TBA
Sept. 30 Georgia* TBA
Oct. 14 South Carolina* TBA
Oct. 21 at Alabama* TBA
Oct. 28 at Kentucky* TBA
Nov. 4 Southern Miss TBA
Nov. 11 at Missouri* TBA
Nov. 18 LSU* TBA
Nov. 25 Vanderbilt* TBA