KNOXVILLE — Tennessee reached the midway point of the 2019 football season last Saturday with a 20-10 victory over Mississippi State. With half the season in the rearview mirror, Times Free Press Tennessee beat writer Gene Henley takes a look at the positional grades to date:
Quarterback – C: Junior Jarrett Guarantano struggled in the team's first four games, prompting the change to freshman Brian Maurer. The latter has had his moments, but has had his own struggles as he's thrown three interceptions — two in the red zone against Mississippi State — and hasn't been able to finish either game. Guarantano came on in relief against the Bulldogs and led three scoring drives, including a game-sealing touchdown pass in the final minutes. But the two have a combined 10 of the Vols' 12 turnovers — 11 if you count a poorly thrown swing pass by Guarantano to Ty Chandler that was fumbled against Georgia State — which have hurt the offense.
Running back — C: The three-headed monster of juniors Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan and freshman Eric Gray has had moments this season. The two juniors were key in the Vols' 10-point win over Mississippi State, grinding out a combined 122 yards and a score, and have been the more reliable options to date. Gray has shown flashes and is the most exciting of the three, but has seen his touches decrease after a fourth-quarter fumble in the Florida game.
Wide receivers — B-plus: The most experienced unit on the offense has played like it. Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway have combined for eight touchdowns on the year. Josh Palmer had some early-season struggles, but has come on in recent games. Tyler Byrd led the team in receiving against Mississippi State. There's also potential with a freshman class that features Ramel Keyton and redshirt Cedric Tillman, players that have had moments early on.
Tight ends — B: The coaching staff has become creative in figuring out ways to get senior Dominick Wood-Anderson involved, including a five-yard carry Saturday against Mississippi State. With 148 yards, he's already topped his receiving yardage total from a year ago (140) and has been key in blocking. Austin Pope has started five games and is one of the team's better run blockers. He had 15 yards receiving on three catches.
Offensive line — C: The final drive of Saturday's win showed the level of trust the coaching staff now has in the offensive line, leaning primarily on the run game to move the ball to midfield. Quarterbacks aren't getting hit as much and the group continues to show promise, even with a pair of true freshmen — Wayna Morris and Darnell Wright — routinely in the starting lineup. The biggest knock is that the Vols aren't getting much push on short-yardage downs, but that's something that could improve with more time and development.
Defensive line — C: There have been small improvements on the defensive line, evidenced by Saturday's win when linemen had three of the team's seven sacks. It was always going to be a unit that took some lumps early (with no experience returning from last season), but they appear to have made some strides in recent weeks, and the Mississippi State game was their best of the season.
Linebackers — B-minus: Like a number of positions on the team, this one has been up-and-down for much of the season. Attrition has killed the inside linebacker group, with a total of four departures since the end of May. Daniel Bituli and Henry To'o To'o have paired to form a solid duo, while Darrell Taylor is coming off his most disruptive game of the season. Quavaris Crouch and Roman Harrison — both freshmen — have shown promise.
Secondary — C: The lack of consistency in the back end has been a problem for the Vols in the early going, but they took a positive step against Mississippi State. At cornerback, Bryce Thompson had a three-game suspension to start the year and is just now rounding back into form. Alontae Taylor has suffered through a bit of a sophomore slump, while freshman Warren Burrell has played okay in the early going. Kenneth George may be the team's best player at the cornerback position so far. Nigel Warrior is rounding into possibly the best player in the secondary at the moment, while Theo Jackson is the team's leading tackler. Trevon Flowers has been up-and-down, but may be out after a lower body injury suffered against Mississippi State.
Special teams — B-plus: Probably the most consistent unit on the field this season. Brent Cimaglia has missed only one of his 12 field-goal attempts on the season and is perfect on extra points. Joe Doyle struggled against Georgia, but followed that up by averaging 46.2 yards on four punts against Mississippi State, including a pair of 50-plus yard kicks. Paxton Brooks has been solid on kickoffs, and in the return game, Ty Chandler had a 58-yard kickoff return against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Coaching — C: For any number of reasons, the Vols got off to a poor start that included losses to Georgia State and BYU, but the incremental improvement has been evident at multiple positions on the field. Saturday's win showed the team is taking steps in the right direction, and going into the second half, those steps will be important.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.