Tennessee’s three keys to the 2022 season

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / The return of linebacker and leading tackler Jeremy Banks should give Tennessee more stability on defense after last year’s inconsistent showings.


1. Doing the homework

It's the most curious aspect to Tennessee's second season under Josh Heupel.

Will the Volunteers be more effective offensively due to the experience in Heupel's system, or will opponents be more prepared to take it on? It's an anticipated dilemma Vols second-year offensive coordinator Alex Golesh has been contemplating and addressing for months.

"You've got to anticipate the answers to people's answers," Golesh said. "When you play a team for the first time and you refer to our tempo, teams settle in and players settle in. When you get to the second and third quarter, people are used to it, and play-callers on the other side of the ball figure out what they can and can't get in at that tempo.

"We have answers to replicate tempo and how they answer it. In a lot of ways, that's what I spent all spring doing. There really was no secret coming in a year ago, because we came from a system (at UCF) with a tempo standpoint and a spacing standpoint that were similar, but we've had to grow and evolve, too."

Tennessee was college football's most dominant team in the first quarter last season, but that's a long way from becoming a 60-minute entity, which is the obvious and ultimate objective.

"We spent a lot of the offseason looking for answers in terms of where we got hurt and where we hurt people knowing that there are going to be answers to that," Golesh said.

2. Keeping backs healthy

The Vols will enter Thursday's opener with four healthy scholarship running backs: junior Jabari Small, sophomore Jaylen Wright, and freshmen Dylan Sampson and Justin Williams-Thomas.

That's not the ideal number to kick off a season, but it's where Tennessee is following the injury to Len'Neth Whitehead and the brief stint of Lyn-J Dixon not working out. If all four backs stay healthy, then the Vols could be solid at that position, but multiple setbacks tend to occur.

Small and Wright are the unquestioned top two, yet it's likely the two newcomers will be needed to shoulder the load at some point.

"I'm happy with where both of those guys are," Golesh said of his freshmen. "I think they can both help us in different ways. The biggest focal point with those guys is making sure they're good on the tempo with which we play picking up the quarterback pressures and being able to protect the quarterback.

"If that part is good, those guys will be able to help us a ton this year."

3. Toeing the line

Tennessee should have some special aspects to its defense, most notably edge rusher Byron Young and with the likes of Jeremy Banks, Aaron Beasley and Juwan Mitchell at linebacker. The secondary has a lot of familiar faces back and is deeper overall, but the key will be whether the defensive front has improved despite the loss of Matthew Butler, who was a fifth-round pick of the Las Vegas Raiders.

"We'll go as far as our front goes, and our guys know that," second-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "Everybody has a job to do on every play, but those guys are the tip of the spear."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.


All times Eastern and p.m.; SEC games in bold

Sept. 1 — vs. Ball State, 7

Sept. 10 — at Pittsburgh, 3:30

Sept. 17 — vs. Akron, 7

Sept. 24 — vs. Florida, TBD

Oct. 8 — at LSU, TBD

Oct. 15 — vs. Alabama, TBD

Oct. 22 — vs. UT Martin, TBD

Oct. 29 — vs. Kentucky, TBD

Nov. 5 — at Georgia, TBD

Nov. 12 — vs. Missouri, TBD

Nov. 19 — at South Carolina, TBD

Nov. 26 — at Vanderbilt, TBD