Football outlook: Maybe more of the same

Marvin Westwestwords

Some things I need to say before spring football practice at Tennessee …

Last season sure was fun – for the most part. Great victory over the Crimson Tide. Never have so many been so happy. Nick is still ticked.

Tennessee’s record could have been one better. Disaster was self-inflicted.

People who speak for ESPN think the Vols will pick up where they left off. That means no worry about new offensive coordinator Joey Halzle. He isn’t exactly new. He’s been with Josh Heupel for 15 years.

There is evidence that Joe Milton is good to go. He handed off successfully during the 56-0 triumph at Vanderbilt and was MVP in the bowl game. Joe made some excellent throws in Miami, nice touch with oranges tossed to fans.

There is no need to fan the fire for Heupel. It burns.

“If you set your mind to something and you work, you really can accomplish anything. That’s a great lesson for this football program. As we continue to move forward, everybody inside that locker room understands there’s a whole lot left out there that we can improve upon, that we can control, that can help us continue to climb.”

Is it OK if I remain curious about receiver replacements, the new right offensive tackle and whether there are linebackers to assist Aaron Beasley? Best bet is BYU transfer Keenan Pili. He was a three-year starter, two-time captain and twice leading tackler.

Looking back, looking ahead.

I shuddered when I heard that the secondary will go right on in the same general direction. Help us, Lord, to improve on pass defense.

The Vols ranked No. 127 among 131 schools, allowing 287 yards per game. Alas, what South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler did – 438 yards and six touchdowns – remains alarming. He has another season of eligibility and the Gamecocks still have the game plan. Oh my.

Tennessee coaches never seemed properly troubled by South Carolina’s 63 points. Perhaps they understood why the defense disintegrated. Coaches softly said errors were made by every phase of the defense, including themselves.

The secondary set the pace.

Alas and alas again, pass defense weakness was not new. It was only worse. Tennessee finished 122nd in 2021.

A meaningful project for spring could be the integration of young (and faster) players onto the defensive depth chart. Going forward without improvement is …

Another project might be finding a way to pressure quarterbacks with the front four.

ESPN foresees the Volunteers as the third best team in the Southeastern Conference (behind Georgia and Alabama) and sixth best in the country. Intruders are Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Nothing new there.

Looking back, looking ahead …

Tennessee led the country in scoring last season, averaging 46.1 points per game. The Vols had 76 touchdowns in 13 games. They averaged 199.4 rushing and 326.1 passing. Milton completed 53 of 82 for 971 yards and 10 touchdowns. He did not lose an interception.

Joe was plenty good enough in the bowl game – 19 of 28 for 251 and touchdowns to Bru McCoy, Squirrel White and Ramel Keyton. All three will be critical to continued success. Key new guy? Oregon transfer Dont’e Thornton.

Six-year tight end Jacob Warren figures to be very valuable to new tight ends coach Alec Abeln.

Jabari Small (Sr.), Jaylen Wright (Jr.) and Dylan Sampson (Soph.) should be just enough running backs. There are freshmen who will learn details of pass protection.

Three-year starters Cooper Mays and Javontez Spraggins are anchors in a solid offensive line. Interesting newcomer: John Campbell, 12-game starter at left tackle for Miami.

Four promising sophomores, Arizona State transfer Omarr Norman-Lott, five-star Daevin Hobbs and four-star Caleb Herring are lined up to help make the defensive front stronger.

Surprise, surprise, the secondary is the big question. There is experience. Maybe that is good, maybe not.

Tennessee will have new punters and place kickers. Most intriguing is Jackson Ross from Melbourne, Australia (15,756 kilometers away).

From age 4 to 18, Ross was a tennis prodigy. He switched to Australian rules football and stumbled into an introduction to Prokick Australia, a company that teaches, trains and guides Australian athletes with potential toward the United States of America – colleges and NFL.

Prokick matches candidates, after full evaluations – attitude, academics, personality, strength, skill set, enthusiasm, response to coaching – with opportunities and scholarships.

Ross, 23 in June, supposedly “invested” more than $11,000 in his future. He caught on quickly. When Mike Ekeler, Tennessee coordinator of special teams, called Prokick to arrange a recruiting visit, the owners-teachers told him to save his money, they had who he needed.

Jackson Ross arrived as scheduled and was surprised by what he found – big stadium, passionate crowd at the Alabama game and a very creative something called name, image and likeness, oh boy.

Running through the T was very exciting. He had never seen such an event.

He spent last season as a red-shirt student Vol under established kicker Paxton Brooks. Kicking a pointed football accurately is more difficult than the rounded ball but Ross is said to be destined for stardom. We’ll see.

Tennessee had a good recruiting roundup in other ways, fifth in the league. In theory, that gained no ground. It may have. Quarterback Nico Iamaleava is already famous. You should have seen him in December practice with the Vols. Maybe you saw the Polynesian Bowl in Hawaii. He is a natural leader.

Analysts say he has everything physically and is not even close to being where he’s going. He’s 6-6 and about 200 and blessed with a positive disposition that seems to make those around him better.

Greg Biggins, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports, said Iamaleava is a phenomenal young man with a great arm and “not an ounce of prima donna or arrogance.”

Nico may be the freshman with the $8 million NIL deal.

Marvin West welcomes readers’ comments or questions. His address is [email protected]

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