Tennessee Football: Final Grades of 2019 Season
Tennessee football experienced quite the roller coaster ride in year two under Jeremy Pruitt.
From a 1-4 start to a bowl game victory over Indiana, the Vols made a remarkable turnaround and finished the season on a high note for the first time in years.
The play of UT’s quarterback group epitomized just how up-and-down this season was for the Vols.
There were high expectations for redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano heading into the year, but his underwhelming start heavily contributed to Tennessee’s start.
Brian Maurer provided brief glimpses of potential, but was unable to stay healthy for an extended period of time, forcing Pruitt to hand the reins back to Guarantano.
Remarkably, it proved to be the right decision.
The Lodi, New Jersey native put together a string of impressive performances, and even when his numbers were subpar, he was able to will the Vols down the field when it mattered most.
UT will need more consistency out of its quarterback to improve next season, but the performances of their signal-callers in 2019 was enough to propel them to a postseason win.
Running Back/Wide Receiver
Like the quarterback position, UT’s offensive weapons experienced their ups and downs throughout the course of the year.
While Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer remained consistent on the outside, the Vols struggled at times to find a consistent producer on the ground.
That led to Tennessee shuffling through its running backs, eventually moving from Ty Chandler to freshman Eric Gray, which turned out to be the correct move to end the season.
Pruitt will likely ask for more consistency from his backs, but his receivers were explosive enough this year that this group receives the first “honors” grade.
Offensive Line/Tight Ends
Another area in which the Vols found themselves in an uphill battle against the concept of consistency.
Getting Trey Smith back was a plus, but that didn’t always lead to others finding their groove on a game-to-game basis.
Ultimately, UT’s group of blockers was able to get the job done when it mattered most. You can’t say the same for their group of tight ends, however.
It’s not entirely their fault.
Dominick Wood-Anderson received a modest amount of targets, but not as much as a pass-catching tight end should. He also helped out in the blocking game, with Austin Pope right behind him in that category.
With Smith’s NFL status remaining unknown at this point, Tennessee’s future at these spots remains clouded aside from the commitment of local product Cooper Mays.
Onto one of Tennessee’s greatest strengths this season.
While the Vols boasted a mediocre offense at best, their defense made up for it by putting them on short fields countless times to close out the year.
You can thank the pressure from UT’s front seven for plenty of that.
From veteran presences in Daniel Bituli and Darrell Taylor to juniors Aubrey Solomon and Darel Middleton to freshman phenom Henry To’o To’o, Tennessee boated plenty of depth up front and it showed throughout the final stretch.
UT constantly wore down its opponents with massive hits and stout run defense. Judging by the results, it looks like it made quite the difference.
Another area for the Vols that saw vast improvement during the second half of the season.
Despite losing Trevon Flowers for the year with a leg injury against Mississippi State, Tennessee’s secondary was among the best in the conference over the final seven games.
Led by senior DB Nigel Warrior and sophomore cornerback Bryce Thompson, the Vols’ defense became one of the most difficult to throw against, totaling 15 interceptions throughout the year.
The front seven may have been UT’s bread-and-butter defensively, but it’s secondary played a key role and that can’t be overlooked given Tennessee’s win streak done the stretch.
If Tennessee’s special teams could be summed up in less than three words, it would be this: Brent Cimaglia.
A model of consistency with his leg, Cimaglia connected on 23 of 27 field goal attempts this season, including a perfect mark from beyond 50 yards.
Paxton Brooks and Joe Doyle split the punting duties, a combined 51 reps between them. Brooks would also lend his expertise on kickoffs, notching 46 touchbacks on 64 kicks.
If you’re a Vols fan, you certainly should feel comfortable with Tennessee’s stability on special teams, even with Cimagli’s inevitable departure.
Give that Tennessee just partook in perhaps its most inspiring in-season turnaround of the decade, a large portion of that credit must go to Pruitt and his coaching staff.
Yes, they did a poor job of getting the team ready for Georgia State. Yes, they struggled with consistency to start as well. Unlike with the players, through, coaching stepped up from the time UT was just 0-1.
UT’s loss at the hands of BYU a week later would prove just that. Had it not been a late blunder courtesy of Alontae Taylor, the Vols very well may have avoided an 0-2 start.
That’s all hindsight, however.
The fact remains that Tennessee did find a way to win with its roster at the time. It found a way to minimize the mistakes that had plagued it through five games. The wins weren’t all pretty, but they counted.
In terms of what you can ask for from a coaching staff, you can’t get any better than UT’s to end the year.
Overall Grade: B