By Jimmy Hyams
One of the most asked questions this Tennessee football offseason is whether the Vols had talent that wasn’t developed or whether the talent was overrated?
We might get the answer in Week One when Tennessee takes on West Virginia.
Or maybe in Week Four, when the Vols face Florida.
Or Week 11, when Kentucky tries to win at Neyland Stadium for the first time since 1984.
The likely answer is: It’s a combination of both.
UT’s previous coaching staff probably didn’t do a great job of developing players and some players probably didn’t deserve four or five stars.
I have a hard time blaming Tennessee for taking a four-star if Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Georgia and Florida also offered. Whether those schools offered with the intent to sign we’ll never know, but when the best teams in your conference are offering players and we don’t know if they really didn’t want to sign them, I give UT the benefit of the doubt.
Having said that, our exercise today will be to determine what areas of the Tennessee team have the most talent and depth.
That can be tricky for three reasons: ( 1) We could be dealing with players coming off injuries or (2) players that weren’t developed or (3) players that moved to another position.
How do you know if a player is truly talented but just hasn’t developed?
Sometimes you don’t.
Having said that, I think there are three areas of the UT team you could argue are the deepest and most talented: Running back, receiver, linebacker.
At running back, Ty Chandler has the potential to be a 1,000-yard rusher, but I don’t know if he has the offensive line or the durability to do so. Amazingly, Chandler played more than 13 snaps just three times last season; one was against Kentucky, against whom he rushed for 120 yards and graded 91 percent.
I’m not that high on Madre London, the grad transfer from Michigan State who rushed for less than 1,000 yards in three years. His best season was his freshman season. He’s also a power back running back behind a not-so-powerful offensive line.
Tim Jordan showed signs of being a decent SEC back in the spring game, but he’s still unproven.
And I’m not sure how much you can count on true freshman running back Jeremy Banks, who was not offered by the previous staff.
At receiver, last year Josh Palmer, who had a position-low grade of 44.1 according to Pro Football Focus, played more snaps than Brandon Johnson, who tied for the team lead with 37 receptions. Johnson also had the most targets (57).
Marquez Callaway, who had the highest receiver PFF grade at 79.6, was targeted just 42 times and had 24 catches. He graded in the 70s in seven of 11 games. He has big-play ability but needs to be more consistent – and UT needs to target him more.
Tyler Byrd has been a disappointment and Jordan Murphy, Jacquez Jones and Latrell Williams haven’t emerged.
The key at wideout is whether Jauan Jennings is “reinstated’’ and returns to the form he had in 2016 when he had 40 catches for 580 yards. Is so, receiver will be a strong spot for UT.
Linebacker is another “if’’ situation. If Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Daniel Bituli return to form coming off injuries, particularly Kirkland, they could form a solid inside tandem. Kirkland has been sidelined two years in a row. Bituli had the second highest grade of any UT returning player (79.9) according to PFF. He had that 23 tackle game against Georgia Tech but played poorly in the final two games of last season.
Will Ignont is another potentially solid inside linebacker.
If Kirkland and Bituli come through, UT could move Quart’e Sapp back to outside linebacker, where he will be joined by Jonathan Kongbo, Darrell Taylor, Shannon Reid, Austin Smith and incoming talent J.J. Peterson.
Kongbo and Taylor might be used primarily in pass-rush situations since both graded much better in pass rush than run defense (Kongbo 76.0 to 45.9, Taylor 79.1 to 43.2). That might be the reason both were moved from defensive end to outside linebacker.
Given the ‘’if’’ factor, I would take Tennessee’s linebackers as the most talented and deepest position on the team.