One of the most historic sites in all of college football. Neyland Stadium, seating 102,455, looks to be filled for the annual Orange & White Spring football game. Entering his second season, Jeremy Pruitt looks to build on a rough start to his Volunteer career. His first full recruiting class for the Vols ranked 12th nationally and 7th in the SEC, with headliners like Wanya Morris, Quavarius Crouch, Eric Gray, Brian Maurer, Darnell Wright, Harry To’oto’o, and possibly Aubrey Solomon. On top of a solid recruiting class, the Vols are returning a lot of the defense besides the line. Some of these key returners are Darelle Taylor, Bryce Thompson, Daniel Bituli, and Alontae Taylor, and we expect them to really flourish in their second full season under Pruitt. Just because these cats are returning does not mean that they have safe starting spots in the lineup. Each spot is(and should) be earned now and throughout the season every week. This cannot be stressed enough after the Vols lost 7 games last year by an average of 25 points(!!!). There are going to have to be some guys that step up, seasoned or new, it will not matter. The Volunteers also had turnover in the coaching staff with notable additions of Tee Martin, Jim Chaney, and Derrick Ansley. Let’s take a look at 5 guys to look for in the O&W Game this Spring.
1. Nigel Warrior – Senior – Safety
The 2 year starter still has a lot of talent and potential left, and he has one last season to finally put it all together. Warrior took a few steps backwards last season only racking up 64 tackles (1 TFL), and 1 pass defense, in comparison to his 2017 season in which he had 83 tackles (3.5 TFL), 1 interception, 1 touchdown, 1 sack, 3 pass defenses, 3 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. This is a huge delta in production, but with Pruitt and a new DB’s coach, expect Warrior to rise to the challenge of reaching the top. If not, he may risk his spot in the starting lineup to some young whippersnappers coming in fresh to this level.
2. Ryan Johnson – Redshirt Junior – Offensive Line
Johnson played a key role in replacing the injured Brandon Kennedy after his season ending injury in the season opener, but with the guard position up for grabs and a lot of bodies prepared to fill it. Ryan struggled at times last year, the whole line did, but this Spring, he has the opportunity to knock the staff’s socks off with Kennedy not slated to return until the Fall. If Johnson can do just this, he will be in serious contention to earn a starting Center spot in the lineup.
3. Eric Gray – Early Enrollee Freshman – Running Back
Gray, a 4-star all-purpose back out of Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, TN, looks to join a deep committee of backs including Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan, Jeremy Banks, and Carlin Fils-Aime. Being an early enrollee gives Gray the opportunity to jump in and show everyone what he’s got and learn the system before the time crunch of the season. Gray also has the opportunity to make some real noise at the O&W game with the possibility of challenging Carlin and Banks for playing time. As an all-purpose back, the staff should be able to utilize his versatility to get him on the field early with a limitless potential of touches in the near future.
4. Wanya Morris – Early Enrollee Freshman – Offensive Line
The 5-Star offensive tackle comes in at a modest 6′-6″, 315 lbs. Absolute. Unit. I fully expect Morris to be featured in Tebow’s Freak of the Weak very soon, as there is no shortage of physical attributes to this man among boys. Especially after such a disappointing season by the offensive line, expect football’s Big Sexy to take the offensive trenches by storm. Hell I’d be interested in throwing that cat in a Heavy I-Formation or Wildcat and letting him tote the rock.
5. Jarrett Guarantano – Redshirt Junior – Quarterback
JG looks to build on an improvement year where he finished the season throwing for over 1900 yards, at 62% comp %, 12 TDs, 3 INTs, and a 141 Passer Efficiency Rating (PER). In the SEC, he was ranked 7th for pass completion percentage, 6th in passing yards per attempt, and 8th in PER. He’ll need to improve those numbers this season if he looks to jolt this Tennessee offense back to where it needs to be after ranking 109th out of 130 teams in points per game, and he should with a hopefully revitalized offensive line, and a stout defense going into its second year under the former defensive coordinator himself, Jeremy Pruitt. He will also have Jim Chaney and newly rearranged quarterbacks coach and Heisman trophy winner, Chris Weinke, to help him really hone in on his skills such as pocket presence and awareness. There will also be scuttlebutt about the man next in line as Redshirt Freshman, J.T. Shrout, and early enrollee, Brian Maurer, look to compete for the backup position.
Featured Image via CBS Sports