By Steve Williams
I can’t remember a UT football season I’ve wanted to get here quicker than this one. There are a couple of good reasons why, too.
The Vols under Butch Jones hit rock bottom in 2017, losing eight games overall and going winless in SEC play for the first time in school history. That’s one.
Secondly, after five years of Butch and four of Derek Dooley, I believe Tennessee finally has a real football coach again in Jeremy Pruitt.
So far, I like everything I’ve heard and seen of him. And I believe the players also feel that way and that they’re getting coached up much better by this staff.
Pruitt’s plan is to bring back Tennessee football, a physical style of play many of us saw under Phillip Fulmer and Johnny Majors that produced many glory years and championships.
I would like to say it could happen overnight, but that’s not likely. I do expect to see marked improvement over last season and from what we witnessed in the Orange and White game this past spring.
Thankfully, the guessing game is almost over. I’m tired of the predictions. This time next week we should have a pretty good idea what kind of season this is going to be.
West Virginia is expected to provide a tough season-opening test come Saturday afternoon in Charlotte when the Volunteers and Mountaineers match up in the Belk College Kickoff, the first meeting ever between these two football programs.
Quarterback Will Grier, considered a candidate for the Heisman Trophy this season, leads West Virginia, which is a 10-point favorite. He was just shy of 3,500 passing yards last season, with 34 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
By the way, Grier grew up and played high school ball in Davidson, N.C., which is just a little over 20 miles from Charlotte. He was offered a scholarship by Tennessee but signed with Florida in 2014 before transferring to WV in 2016.
Most local reports I’ve heard indicate Jarrett Guarantano will start the season as Tennessee’s No. 1 QB ahead of Keller Chryst, the transfer from Stanford.
Other offensive leaders for the Vols coming out of preseason camp include wide receivers Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway, running backs Ty Chandler and Madre London (transfer from Michigan State) and tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson (from Arizona Western Community College).
Of course, the Vols are glad to have Trey Smith back. The 6-6, 320-pound sophomore from Jackson missed spring practice and most of fall camp with a medical condition. He is regarded as one of the nation’s best blockers. Word also is he carries a sledgehammer around campus. Call it workout on the go. I love that.
UT also will have a transfer from Alabama at center in Brandon Kennedy. Maybe he also can provide some inside info on the Tide.
Defensive standouts heading into the opener include Jonathan Kongbo, a redshirt senior who will lineup as a pass rusher at outside linebacker or end, depending on whether Tennessee is in a 3-4 or 4-3 formation. Kongbo has slimmed down 30 pounds to 254 since last season.
One of the Vols’ biggest concerns is the secondary, but junior Nigel Warrior may be a pleasant surprise and Alontae Taylor, a talented freshman from Manchester, has turned heads all summer. Daniel Bituli, a 6-3, 244-pound junior from Nashville Christian, is expected to be a bright spot in a loaded linebacker corps.
Tennessee’s special teams appear to be unproven, but Coach Pruitt says he will have his best players on the field. Among the competing specialists is a local product from Farragut High, redshirt-freshman punter Joe Doyle.
Tennessee’s home opener will be Sept. 8 against ETSU and Randy Sanders’ Buccaneers. The Vols’ SEC opener against Florida on Sept. 22 also will be at Neyland Stadium.
I can hardly wait.