Following a season that saw the Tennessee Volunteers finish an embarrassing #118 in offensive S&P+, the coaching staff was understandably overhauled. To run the offense, Jeremy Pruitt went out west and pulled Tyson Helton, brother of Trojans’ head man Clay, away from USC where he served as quarterbacks coach. Helton brings a rare “pro-style” attack to Knoxville, eschewing many of today’s spread principles for tighter formations, power running, and a vertical passing attack that gives big bodied receivers an opportunity to make plays.
Returns thus far have been favorable, though the Vols have a long way to go before anyone is going to call this offense “good.” They sit at #67 on the S&P+ metric and play at a glacial pace, their 66 offensive snaps per game among the slowest in the power five. The running game has had a rough time, averaging only 3.8 yards per carry, but the passing game has been relatively explosive, its 9.0 yards per attempt good for 17th nationally. As usual, it all starts with the man under center.
#2 Jarrett Guarantano, RS So.
Tennessee brought in graduate transfer Keller Chryst from Stanford in the offseason to compete with Guarantano, but most considered it to be his job all along. He has performed well for the most part, though he hasn’t been asked to do a ton. He came into the Auburn game last week averaging only 160 yards per game on about 20 attempts, then proceeded to light up the Tigers to the tune of 21/32 for 328 yards and two scores with no interceptions, easily his best performance as a collegian. Guarantano looked like a gunslinger in that one, routinely firing the ball into traffic and laying up a few 50/50 balls to give his guys a shot. They were in sync on that day, and the receivers made some phenomenal plays for him.
The 6’4” Guarantano was rated four stars by the recruiting services and listed as a dual threat but he really hasn’t run this year, instead using his mobility to extend plays and look for the big shots downfield. He’s been under quite a bit of pressure but has taken care of the football with only two interceptions. Expect him to try and throw it deep early and often on Saturday. Some early pressure and/or an interception from the opportunistic Alabama secondary would go a long way toward shaking his confidence.
This unit is probably the strength of the entire team. The WRs are big, with strong hands and hops to spare.
#1 Marquez Callaway - 6’2” 200, Jr.
#84 Josh Palmer - 6’2” 201, So.
#15 Jauan Jennings - 6’3” 221, RS Jr.
These guys are a three-headed monster whose measurables speak for themselves. They present matchup problems for most college secondaries. Callaway (above) is the leader with 18 catches for 286 yards, but Palmer has shown the most explosiveness with a 25.8 yard average on his 11 touches. Jennings has kept the chains moving with his 17/207 and has found the end zone twice. Big receivers like this trio are the reason that Saban has focused on size at the cornerback position, and they will need every bit of that length on Saturday.
TE Dominick Wood-Anderson has made a minor contribution with 7/55/1 on the season, but he has generally been called upon to help the offensive line keep Guarantano upright. Junior WR Brandon Johnson may see some action as well.
#8 Ty Chandler - 5’11’ 201, So.
#9 Tim Jordan - 5’11 203, So.
#31 Madre London - 6’1” 213, Sr.
Helton has used a committee approach in the backfield this season, with the bulk of tha touches going to Jordan and Chandler. Jordan leads in that category with 76 carries and 80 total, but Chandler (above) has been the most explosive by far, with 412 yards on his 65 touches. Chandler got loose for a TD last week running a wheel route, on a play that confused the Auburn LBs and left him completely uncovered in the middle of the field. Needless to say, that should be concerning for Alabama fans considering some of the lapses in that area thus far. As his size would suggest, London is the battering ram of the bunch, with three of his 37 totes finding the end zone.
This is an embattled unit that has allowed 11 sacks in six games and struggled to open holes consistently. Brandon Kennedy, graduate transfer from Alabama, had won the job as the starting center but was lost for the season with a torn ACL in the season opener. In his stead is sophomore Ryan Johnson, who has seemingly struggled in communication with guards Jahmir Johnson and Jerome Carvin.
Sophomore LT Trey Smith (above) has the potential to be a high NFL draft pick. He stands 6’6”, 320 lb. and has plus athleticism for his size. The other bookend, RT Drew Richmond, came to Knoxville as a top prospect with offers from all of the top SEC programs including Alabama. The redshirt junior has never really lived up to the hype, with some flashes of brilliance mixed into his inconsistent performance.
Until last week, this unit seemed to be doomed against SEC defenses, then they went out and lit up an Auburn defense that ranks #2 in S&P+. They managed to make a lot of low percentage plays in that one so it will be difficult to repeat, but Guarantano seemed to be comfortable throwing it up and giving his big targets a chance to come down with the ball in tight coverage. It will be a surprise if the Vols are able to run it much on Alabama but there should be some fun plays outside, with Saivion Smith and Patrick Surtain II challenging the Tennessee receivers. The Alabama pass rush should have plenty of opportunity to get to Guarantano, and taking advantage of it would go a long way toward thwarting the Tennessee threat.