Tennessee should have its deepest roster in several seasons, offering a reason for optimism despite a brutal schedule.
Here’s a projection for who could be the Vols’ superlative performers.
Offensive MVP: Eric Gray
Gray spent much of his freshman season as Tennessee’s third-string running back before finishing with a flourish. He rushed for 246 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Vanderbilt before being named the most valuable player of the Gator Bowl for his part in helping UT rally past Indiana.
Gray is now in line for an enhanced role as the offense’s most exciting player. He’ll join Ty Chandler as the team’s feature backs.
“They both are determined to have good seasons,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “You can just see there’s an air of maturity about those two.”
Working behind a solid offensive line, Gray could improve on last season’s average of 5.3 yards per carry. Even in a shortened season, an 800-yard rushing total seems within reach. He’s the complete package offering speed, vision, agility and enough strength to earn tough yardage.
Defensive MVP: Henry To’o To’o
Much like Gray, To’o To’o is positioned to build off a solid freshman season and emerge as a standout performer. To’o To’o will make the calls for Tennessee’s defense, taking over a role previously held by Daniel Bituli.
Bituli led Tennessee in tackles for three straight seasons, and To’o To’o’s task will be to go from dependable sidekick to defensive linchpin. It should be a smooth transition.
“He’s shredded some body fat and added some muscle,” defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley said. “He’s gotten quicker at the point of attack. He’s a lot better laterally, changing the directions and covering the running backs out the backfield.”
Best freshman: Jalin Hyatt
Combine talent with opportunity, and Hyatt stands to be a high-impact freshman. He’s one of three four-star wide receivers whom Tennessee signed in the 2020 recruiting class, and the Vols had just one returning starter at wide receiver.
Hyatt’s speed makes him an appealing option in the slot, but he also can play on the perimeter.
“We have a lot of young receivers, and one thing about all of them is they can run,” coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “They’re really fast. Jalin is a guy that is very polished.”
Most improved: Wanya Morris
Last season, Morris flashed the talent that made him a five-star recruit, but he had some hiccups in performance that you’d expect as a freshman starting at left tackle. Now, he’s a 12-game starter who should be poised to play with more consistency.
Best NFL prospect: Trey Smith
Smith is talented enough to be an early-round selection in the NFL Draft. No one questions that. His medical history gives some cause for concern — he was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs in February 2018 — and he followed a specialized practice plan last season in which he was a full-contact participant in just two practices.
The plan, Pruitt said, is for Smith to be a more active practice participant this year. If Smith can put NFL scouts at ease about his health history, he should be a first- or second-round pick.
Offensive breakout performer: Ramel Keyton
Tennessee leaned so heavily on its veteran wide receiver trio of Marquez Callaway, Jauan Jennings and Josh Palmer last season that it offered limited opportunity for a talented freshman like Keyton.
Following the departure of Callaway and Jennings, and Deangelo Gibbs’ decision to opt out, Keyton projects as Tennessee’s No. 2 target behind Palmer.
Keyton caught four passes last season. It’s not unreasonable to pencil Keyton in for 30-plus receptions this season.
“He can be as good as he determines he wants to be,” Chaney said.
Defensive breakout performer: Kivon Bennett
Bennett quietly became a productive player as a sophomore, logging 27 tackles and two sacks as Tennessee’s second-best outside linebacker, behind Darrell Taylor.
With Taylor now in the NFL, the Vols are greatly in need of pass rushers, and Bennett deserves ample opportunity to show that he’s ready for a more prominent role.
“He’s more locked in and focused,” outside linebackers coach Shelton Felton said. “He’s a natural pass rusher. He can be one of the best pass rushers in the conference.”
Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake’s subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.