Tennessee football: reasons for confidence, reasons for concern

Tennessee football: reasons for confidence, reasons for concern

The Tennessee Volunteers are a perfect 3-0 going into the SEC game. In this conference, you need to cash out the winnings when you can. There are very few easy weeks and you have to be able to adapt on the fly. Tennessee is hoping for a strong start to the conference game with a victory over the Florida Gators on Saturday. This game is never easy, but Tennessee has plenty of reason to feel confident heading into the game.

After three games, we can start drawing conclusions about what Tennessee brings to the table. We already know their offensive philosophy and what they want to do in defense. From there we can see how close they are to reaching their ideal shape. We can also see which players are starting to shine…and which players need to start improving.

So, before this Saturday gauntlet begins, we decided to break down what the team does well, along with some questions they need to answer.

How to feel confident

The defensive line is legit

I think it’s safe to say that Tennessee’s defensive line has proven itself from the first games. They may not be an elite unit, but they clearly have enough skill and depth to anchor the defense. The interior in particular has a good options group, led by up-and-coming star Omari Thomas. We also saw strong contributions from guys like Bryson Eason and Roman Harrison, and even real freshmen like Joshua Josephs.

On the edge, Byron Young lives up to his reputation as one of the league’s best passing throwers. He gives a handful of offensive tackles every play. But I could say the biggest emergence has been Tyler Baron on the other side. He’s not usually tasked with being the main setter, but Baron has been a wall across the line. He does a very good job of containing offenses and not being pushed back to the line of scrimmage.

If it was just the defensive line that met expectations, I’d be a little tired of the top seven heading into conference play. But it’s because of this guy next door that I’m buying the Tennessee defense.

Aaron Beasley has taken the next step

This guy is my pick for early game defensive MVP. Tennessee was hoping Beasley could improve on a strong 2021 season and round out the linebacking corps with Jeremy Banks (more on that later). He flashed a lot in 2021, but he was still exploited by some offenses. The staff granted his wish.

Aaron Beasley is a brute force in the middle and he has a knack for the ball. Regardless of the direction of the room, you can find Beasley. We know since he was a rookie that he loves contact, he hurts guys in high school. This eventually translated to the college level, where Beasley was the performer of more than a few plays. He’s also violent enough that they send him rushing passes to try to pressure quarterbacks. It’s something that could seriously alter the way the Tennessee defense does its job as the year progresses. I don’t know if he will continue to play at this level, but I’m quite confident that he will continue to consolidate his place.

Offensive firepower remains intact

Point totals and various stats would point to a clear answer here. But at the same time, there have been concerns that the Tennessee offense will find themselves in tough times. We saw him pop up in the Pittsburgh game, especially early in the contest. Clearly, the Tennessee offense won’t be the unstoppable juggernaut of the entire SEC game.

But I will say that after watching the games (including a full replay of the Pittsburgh game), I think some of the worries are overblown. There have been plenty of games where Tennessee had a wide open receiver; the result was either a bad pitch from Hendon Hooker or a mental error from a receiver.

It would be one thing if the offense was simply stopped. But the new watch clearly showed that there was still room for improvement. This will likely come with a few more reps as the season progresses. There’s a little tendency to hang on to Cedric Tillman, who hasn’t been as sharp as expected. But again, on more than a few of the missed connections, Tillman was actually open.

To add to that, volunteers have three options that could be a no. 1 receiver in most schools nationwide. It seems strange to say that after losing Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton, but this Tennessee wide reception room could be even more talented.

What to worry about

Jeremy Banks hasn’t taken the next step (although he could still have an impact)

This is something I’ve always had a bit of skepticism about. During his five years at Tennessee, Jeremy Banks proved himself to be a promising athlete and hard-hitting hitter … but susceptible to wide receiver shifts. Banks loves stealing and is guaranteed to make a good play every game. But it’s been exactly the same for a few years now. What also supported is that Banks can be picked on in coverage and seems to be slow to react to what a quarterback gives him.

I don’t think Banks is a bad linebacker. In fact, I’d say it’s above average. But Tennessee’s expectation was not above average. Banks was expected to put everything in place for 2022 and become the versatile linebacker Tennessee needs. Through three games, it did not materialize. In fact, you might consider Aaron Beasley the closer of the two.

I still think Banks is your best option going forward, and he can give you a level of physicality that your defense needs. But I would also recognize that there are real flaws in his game that we will have to be able to address.

No stars in high school

This is probably the most worrisome, and one of those issues you need to recruit yourself for. Currently, Tennessee does not have a good high school. They have strong security entries with Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCollough. Beyond that, there is a traffic jam at cornerback, where no one has really proven themselves yet. That hasn’t been taken advantage of much this year, as Tennessee hasn’t really faced elite receivers. The best passing game they faced was Pittsburgh with Kedon Slovis, but Slovis left the game early with an injury. The defensive results before his departure were not inspiring.

Two glimmers of hope exist. The first is Tamarion McDonald at the STAR position. It’s the perfect use of his natural skills, and he’s already made some standout plays this season. The second is Kamal Hadden. He looks like a quality athlete who can progress to a CB1. The key for him will simply be more reps in the system.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, cornerback Warren Burrell seems to have hit his ceiling. The fact that he plays a lot probably indicates that Tennessee doesn’t trust the guys behind him.

Struggles inside

Unfortunately, Tennessee’s offensive line was unable to create the huge inside runs we witnessed last year. That’s a bit of a conundrum, as the Volunteers turned starting center Cooper Mays and starters Javontez Spraggins and Jerome Carvin. The offensive line seems to have improved a bit on pass protection, but the same can’t be said for run blocking. In fact, if you analyze the numbers, Tennessee’s yards per carry in the first three games of this season is gone. down compared to last year (by about half a metre). It’s not necessarily a huge drop, but it is concerning. Mainly because this offensive line was supposed to be one of the most experienced in the league. But rather than building on progress, they seem to have regressed in this area.

Admittedly, some of this is also by design. Tennessee wants to air it, and they’re also trying to see which running back is more trustworthy. Tennessee has a somewhat shallow running room at the moment, so it could also be a simple confidence issue. Coaches don’t want to pressure a real first-year running back.

We’re about to find out if Tennessee has been “holding back” to start the season. Volunteers can still have a great year with Hooker and their receivers. But if they have rushing efforts similar to the Pittsburgh game, it could cost them a win or two.

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