KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — With less than 10 days until the football season gets started for Tennessee, now seemed just as good a time as any to look at who some of the most exciting players will be for the Vols this season. Time to put on the opinion cap and go to work. A few points:
-These are players that I personally am the most excited to watch play football for Tennessee.
-I tried to stay away from freshmen for the most part because playing time is so hard to predict.
Let's get started.
10) Daniel Bituli - Senior linebacker
Bituli has led Tennessee in tackles the past two seasons and will have to be a leader for a relatively young linebacker group. He's spoke often about his confidence in year two under Jeremy Pruitt as well as his ability to play video games. If the defensive line can keep offensive linemen off of him, Bituli could lead UT in tackles for the third straight season.
9) Dominick Wood-Anderson - Senior tight end
Sitting at 6'4" and nearly 260 pounds, the Arizona Western Community College product is a big target for quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. In his first year at UT, Wood-Anderson had 17 catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns, but was hampered by injuries for much of the second half of the season. Wood-Anderson has talked a lot about getting adjusted to the SEC this offseason, getting stronger and working on his blocking. Who doesn't love a tight end running down the seam of a defense?
8) Trevon Flowers - Sophomore defensive back
The surprise of the Class of 2018, Flowers and Alontae Taylor were the first true freshmen defensive backs to start a season opener for UT since Cameron Sutton in 2013 (pretty nice company). His rookie season was cut short though, a broken collarbone forced him out for five games in the middle of the year. What can this two-sport athlete bring to the back end of the defense beside senior Nigel Warrior? That's the big question.
7) Eric Gray - Freshman running back
I tried to stay away from freshmen on this list, but it is hard to ignore Eric Gray. The three-time Tennessee Mr. Football from Memphis has garnered all kinds of attention from folks inside the program. The running back room is stacked, so if he can make it on the field a lot this season, he's the real deal. Running backs coach David Johnson has been the most impressed with his work ethic and maturity this season. Johnson said a lot of the running backs, including Gray, are getting reps with special teams. His speed could be a factor on kickoffs.
6) Jauan Jennings - Redshirt senior wide receiver
Jennings is going to be that guy that opposing SEC fans go "How is he still at Tennessee?" every time he makes a play. The elder statesman in the wide receiver room, Jennings doesn't have as many miles on him as the year may show. Injuries have kept him on and off the field for the past couple of year, but he's the healthiest he's been since his breakout season in 2016 (40 catches, 580 yards, 7 touchdowns). Take all that and add the depth to the receiver room and Jennings will be a security blanket for Jarrett Guarantano all season long, especially on third down.
5) Darrell Taylor - Redshirt senior linebacker
By now you've probably heard the same few phrases about Darrell Taylor - no one returning to the SEC this season had more sacks than him last year. 7 of his 8 sacks came against Georgia and Kentucky. Sure. The Hopewell, Virginia native is one of the most talented players on Tennessee's defense. He's one of the best pro prospects on the team as well. A big season could make him a very rich man, but at the end of the day it'll come down to one thing: consistency.
4) Josh Palmer - Junior wide receiver
I've been gushing about Palmer's potential all offseason. He had one of the best springs of any player in Orange and White, his 21 yards per catch was the best of any player in the SEC last season and put him just outside of the top five nationally. Guarantano and Palmer have good chemistry on downfield throws, and that was with UT allowing just under two sacks a game. Next for one of the most physically gifted receivers in a room of physically gifted receivers is consistency: Palmer's 23 catches was third on the team. Extrapolate those numbers to 10 or 20 more receptions and oh boy, look out.
3) Jarrett Guarantano - Redshirt junior quarterback
After two straight Fall Camps with quarterback battles, JG is the face of the program at Tennessee. Quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke has talked at length about Guarantano's maturity and heightened leadership ability. The quarterback flashed his talent in an upset win against No. 21 Auburn on the road, but spent much of the season on his back or with pressure in his face. The question now isn't can Guarantano become a capable starter, we're past that point. Now the question is, can Guarantano take the next step into the upper echelon of SEC quarterbacks? When NFL teams talk quarterbacks in the conference, will his name be thrown around with the likes of Jake Fromm and Tua Tagovailoa? Tennessee will need him to be the best version of himself: no other quarterback on the roster has taken a snap at the collegiate level. Guarantano has said all offseason he's excited for new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's offense. He's said he has a lot of control over what goes down play to play. Now that the keys are in his hands, what does he do with the car? For the record, I think he revs it up and goes flying down the highway with Tennessee in tow.
2) Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson - Sophomore defensive backs
It's rare to have freshmen play as many important minutes as these two did at cornerback: Taylor was one of the first freshman defensive backs to start a season opener for Tennessee since Cameron Sutton and Thompson was named FWAA freshman All-American. These two are tied to each other. Tennessee could be on the verge of grooming two shutdown corners for its defense of the future. Thompson said earlier this Fall Camp he believes Jeremy Pruitt is the "best defensive coach in the country." Thompson led the team with three interceptions and seven breakups last season. Taylor finished with 40 total tackles and two forced fumbles which was second on the team only to Darrell Taylor. The higher these two fly, the better the defense can be. They've been tested early and often, I'm excited to see how they've gotten better under the guidance of Pruitt and new defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley.
1) Ty Chandler - Junior running back
I'm gonna tell you a really easy way for Tennessee to put up a lot of points: get Ty Chandler the ball in space. Wait, but what's the best way? Hand the ball off? Set up a screen play? Line him up in the slot? Yes, the answer is yes. Running backs coach David Johnson said Chandler ran at 4.3 speeds this summer. That's really really fast. There is not a player on Tennessee's team more dangerous in space than Ty Chandler. He averaged 5.5 yards per attempt on the ground last season with a UT team that finished 113th in rushing offense. Chandler is lightning in a bottle. He's the first Vol to have two 75 yard or more runs in a single season since 2006, per Tennessee Stats & Info. In a perfect world, I think Ty Chandler is top three in receptions for the Vols this season. Last year, in 11 games, Chandler averaged 9.6 yards per catch (nearly a first down every catch) to go along with three touchdowns. I'll say it again: do whatever you can to give Ty Chandler the ball with nothing but green grass in front of him.
Honorable mentions: Senior safety Nigel Warrior, freshman linebacker Henry To'o To'o, redshirt freshman defensive lineman Greg Emerson and junior kicker Brent Cimaglia.